Constituency profile #2: Ynys Mon
By Jeff Jones* and Laura McAllister
It’s a bit of a platitude to say that Ynys Mon (or Anglesey as the constituency was formerly known) is a rather unique constituency. The name gives it away- like the Isle of Wight, it is an island constituency but, with 53,000 voters, has an electorate half the size of its English counterpart. The local authority, the “Isle of Anglesey”- contains the second highest number of Welsh speakers of any council in Wales. In the 2011 census, 56% of the island’s inhabitants were able to speak Welsh but with big variations across the island. For instance, in Llangefni, one of the main towns with a population of 5,116, the figure was 80%. It is hard to imagine a MP for Ynys Mon who was not bilingual, although we suppose that people said that about Ceredigion too.
Ynys Mon is a constituency where local issues and the personal qualities and status of candidates competing to represent it can often be just as important as wider UK political trends. That is what makes it such an interesting and unpredictable contest on June 8th and there’s little wonder that Ynys Mon is one of the top three constituencies in Wales that has attracted most interest from punters who enjoy an election flutter.
Uniquely (we will say that a lot in this profile!), since 1945 the constituency has been represented in Parliament by MPs from all four of Wales’ main parties. In 1945, David Lloyd George’s daughter Megan retained the seat as a Liberal. In 1951, she was defeated by Labour’s Cledwyn Hughes who went on to represent the island in Westminster until 1979. When he was canvassing in his first election in 1945, the future Secretary of State for Wales spoke at 50 meetings, 45 in Welsh. If the best campaigning is conducted in poetry, clearly it helps to know some Welsh poems! One of Wales’s most distinguished post-war politicians, Hughes was very much in the traditional Welsh “radical tradition” positioning himself beyond the dominant Labour unionism and socialism of the southern valleys. Hughes had a distinguished career serving as a cabinet minister and was also a very effective Labour Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords during the 1980s.
In 1979, with Hughes deciding not to stand, Elystan Morgan contested the seat for Labour. Morgan had been the MP for Cardiganshire from 1966 to February 1974 when he lost to the Liberal, Geraint Howells. A junior minister in Wilson’s 1966 to 1970 government, Morgan was seen by many as a politician destined for great things. To great surprise, the Conservative candidate Keith Best, who came from Brighton, won the seat. Although now sitting as a crossbencher in the Lords, the Ynys Mon defeat saw Elystan Morgan effectively withdraw from politics to concentrate on his legal career.
Keith Best successfully defended the seat in 1983. But before the 1987 general election, he was sentenced to four months in prison as a result of multiple applications to buy shares in the newly privatised British Telecom. His successor as the island’s MP was a youngish local solicitor, Ieuan Wyn Jones, from Plaid Cymru, who had come second in the 1983 election. Ieuan Wyn Jones would continue to represent the island at Westminster until 2001, having then decided to stand down after been elected as the island’s Assembly Member to the newly created Welsh Assembly in 1999. Jones went on to become leader of Plaid Cymru and the Assembly’s Deputy First Minister in the ground-breaking coalition government with Labour from 2007–11. In 2012, Jones announced that he was retiring from politics and resigned his seat as Ynys Mon’s AM. In the subsequent by-election in 2013, Plaid easily retained the seat with BBC political journalist, Rhun ap Iorwerth, easily winning the by-election with a massive majority of over 9,000. The voting data shows that the people of Ynys Mon make very distinctive choices at different election levels but even so, this was a striking result for Plaid, especially as Labour had genuinely felt itself to be in with a chance in the by-election. Its candidate, Tal Michael, was well-known from his work with North Wales Police Authority and Labour certainly threw plenty of support to his campaign.
In the 2016 Assembly election, Plaid held the seat, again comfortably with a vote of 13,788 with Labour trailing in second with 4,278, UKIP third with 3,212 and the Tories trailing in fourth with 2,904.
In 2001, with the Blair government at the height of its popularity, and to the surprise of Plaid Cymru at least, Jones was succeeded as MP by Labour’s Albert Owen.
Ynys Mon has been a top target seat for Plaid Cymru ever since but, despite the party’s best efforts, Albert Owen has batted them off and again retained the seat in the General Election of 2015 (this time very narrowly with a majority of just 229). Owen is Labour’s candidate on June 8th.The electoral history of Ynys Mon illustrates that its voters are fiercely independent and often very loyal to the incumbent. First and foremost, is a defence of the island-some might argue that, even when voting Plaid, there is more commitment to “Ynys Mon-ism” ahead of Welsh nationalism. They are also prepared to switch parties. The extent to which this is driven by UK or Welsh trends (or a combination of both) is hard to decipher and will play a critical part in who emerges victorious next month.
The economic prosperity of the island is probably the paramount issue-this time set against a backdrop of Brexit. In the aftermath of the EU referendum, there are bound to be concerns about the future of the island’s largest town, Holyhead and its port which is one of the UK’s main gateways to the Republic of Ireland. Ynys Mon farmers will also want an MP who will fight to ensure that any new subsidy scheme will reflect rural concerns post Brexit after the ending of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments. Although a vocal and prominent minority on the island oppose the new replacement nuclear reactor for the existing Wylfa site, the majority of voters will expect their MP to ensure the success of the new project and the much needed employment that it will bring. Plaid Cymru nationally might be opposed to nuclear power but on Ynys Mon, their candidates have always supported nuclear energy at the cost of some internal tensions and much emotion within the wider party.
There will also be concerns about the defence policies of the parties given the existence on the island of the RAF base at Valley, which employs 500 civilians.
So, Labour might have held the seat since 2001, but Plaid has had absolutely no difficulty in retaining the Assembly seat since devolution. In the 2015 General Election, UKIP polled 5,121 votes. To support what are valid hopes by the Conservatives, UKIP votes together with the Tories totalled 12,514, which evidently is greater than either Labour’s winning 10,871 or Plaid Cymru’s 10,642. To add a further dimension in this most ‘Brexit’ of elections, in the referendum, Ynys Mon voted narrowly to leave by 19,333 to 18,618. The extent to which the Leave supporters accept the messaging about Theresa May’s mandate to negotiate Brexit will undoubtedly have an impact on who wins on June 8th.
In the recent local elections on May 4th, Plaid gained 41% of the total island vote and, with 14 councillors, became the largest group on the council even if it didn’t take overall control. With Plaid taking the leadership of the council, the party would seem to have added credibility at an opportune moment. Plus, council politics on Ynys Mon is always interesting. A series of scandals forced the Welsh Government to intervene in the running of the council in February 2011 after a scathing WAO report in 2009. The Government also recalibrated the ward structure, replacing the small individual wards with large multi-member wards. It has been felt that some incumbents had acted a bit like politicians in pre-1914 Liberal Italy. Local politics was dominated by a few, very strong-minded personalities who, to quote from the statement from the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government at the time, Carl Sargeant, saw their role “to manoeuvre for personal and group advantage rather than deliver for the whole island. Making and breaking deals remains a pervasive feature of the Council’s political culture.” What’s Trasformismo yn Gymraeg?!
Plaid took most advantage of this council turmoil, with Labour winning only two council seats and the Conservatives just one in May. Still, it is worth exercising some proper caution about how that might read across for the General Election contest, since 31% of Ynys Mon voters supported independent candidates. May 4th might not be the best indicator for June 8th, but what it does show is that Plaid has an established reach with voters that it doesn’t have in many other Welsh seats, as well as the kind of serious, professional, island-wide party machine that Labour has so skilfully used in parts of the south of the country.
Our sense is that opinion polls help us little in three-way marginals like Ynys Mon, especially as local and personality factors will play a key part in the result. So, who are the main runners and riders in this handicap race? The Labour candidate is Albert Owen, the sitting MP. Owen was born in Holyhead and few would deny that he has been a conscientious and hard-working MP. The issues for Owen are no different to other Labour candidates-the negative perceptions of the Corbyn leadership and Brexit credibility. Owen has been elected in successive elections since 2001, but significantly has never polled above 12,278 votes. He will probably need to get at least that figure- and possibly more- to retain the seat for Labour in the face of voter fluidity, along with UKIP’s collapse.
Interestingly, Plaid’s vote when it has won the seat at Westminster and in Assembly elections is consistently above the best vote that Labour has accrued. In the 2001 General Election, Labour’s Albert Owen won the seat by 800 votes over Plaid’s Elian Williams. The Conservatives trailed in third with 7,653 votes.
In 1987, Ieuan Wyn Jones persuaded 18,580 Ynys Mon voters to support him. In the 2016 Assembly election, his successor as AM, Rhun ap Iorwerth polled 13,788 – 2,971 votes more than Albert Owen’s winning total in 2015. On paper, Ieuan Wyn Jones looks the candidate to beat. But this is a not a seat for safe bets and Ynys Mon is never a cert. Even more so this time with such an unprecedented degree of voter shift patterns. Whilst Ieuan Wyn Jones has a good track record in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay, his return from retirement raised a few eye brows, not least because it suggested the Plaid’s succession planning strategy is hardly producing a conveyor belt jammed full of talented, younger politicians. We hear that there were some strong, younger candidates, but a short campaign in a snap election was felt to favour the tried and tested. Regardless, there can be no denying that not capturing Ynys Mon this time would be a disaster for Plaid.
The Conservative candidate is Dr. Tomos Dafydd Davies. Not a native of Ynys Mon (he is from Aberystwyth), Davies gained a PhD from Aberystwyth University with an interesting thesis comparing the Welsh Conservative Party and its Canadian counterpart’s approach to the national question. Davies is a former special adviser at the Wales Office and a Welsh speaker. He has been described by one commentator. as ‘new, bright and fresh’. Indeed, he launched his campaign with the slogan “A Fresh Start for Ynys Mon”, a play to the generation gap between him and his main rivals. Given his late selection, only confirmed a week or two ago, and the absence of any clear connection with the island, what we say above about the fierce local identity of Ynys Mon voters means, in theory at least, Davies will have to work very hard over the next few weeks to get some personal traction but he won’t have to try too hard to get the Conservative message across at least. Still, the fact he is an “outsider” means that he may well run out of time. But we say “in theory” as, despite our remarks about the paramount status of the local in General Election contests in seats like Ynys Mon, we cannot yet measure how a presidential contest played out at UK level between May and Corbyn will assist Conservative candidates like Davies this time. Still, the truth is that this is a candidate at the start of his political career, rather than the end like some of his rivals, so he has all to gain and not much to lose.
So, let’s hear it for that rare thing in Wales-a three-way marginal! Lots of threes as the three main parties in this contest have all to play for in the next three weeks. Ieuan Wyn Jones should be the favourite but seat projections using the uniform national swings show the Tories snatching Ynys Mon. And crucially, this is Westminster not an Assembly election. Can Albert Owen again surprise everyone as he did in 2010 and 2015 and hang on in the saddle to clear the final fence (in the best traditions of Welsh Labour)? Or, will we see, as in the 1980s, UK voting trends being played out in Ynys Mon, with a new, young Conservative candidate taking the party from third place to victory. Place your bets, Mesdames et Messieurs…
*Former Leader of Bridgend Council and Labour Party councillor.