1959 Election in Merioneth. A photograph from the Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales (via Flickr Commons)
1959 Election in Merioneth. A photograph from the Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales (via Flickr Commons)

Yesterday, 5 August 2015, marked ninety years since the founding of Plaid Cymru in Pwllheli. To say that the Blaid today is quite different from its 1920s roots is to make an obvious observation – all political parties are different from what they started with. But Plaid has undergone considerable transformation over the past 90 years moving from a fairly conservative party concerned with matters of language and culture, through a long period when the party might be fairly described as liberal with a Welsh accent, and finally to more socialist and social democratic forms that have predominated in more recent times. These changes reflect, as several scholars of the party have pointed out, the leading personalities. The cultural conservatism of Saunders Lewis, the liberal-nationalism of Gwynfor Evans, and the socialism and social democratic ideals of Dafydd Wigley, Dafydd Elis Thomas, and latterly Leanne Wood. We might readily add Phil Williams, D. J. and Noëlle Davies, Syd Morgan, Jill Evans, and others.

We know rather a lot about the various ideological changes that have affected Plaid Cymru but historians and political scientists have been less effective in laying out the psephological development of Plaid Cymru in, for instance, the South Wales Coalfield. Did the change of leadership and ideological perspective from Saunders Lewis to Gwynfor Evans have a discernible impact on Plaid’s electoral performance? Why does the party appear to stutter at moments when it might otherwise have been expected to have done very well indeed? And why has Plaid Cymru not yet managed to overcome the Labour Party’s dominance of the Welsh electoral system? Today’s blog is based on a small sample of results that I’ve been working on and is inevitably focused on the Cardiff, Rhondda, Cynon and Taff-Merthyr areas since these are the most straightforward sources for me to access. Nevertheless, I hope that any insights gained are instructive.

It is not, I don’t think, controversial to say that the first twenty years of Plaid Cymru’s existence are unimportant when discussing its electoral presence in the South Wales Coalfield. Certainly the party had activists living in the Rhondda and elsewhere, and ran candidates at local government level, but the Plaid Cymru of Saunders Lewis could not shake the solid foundations of the Labour citadel. Only the Communist Party, and then only in certain places, was able to provide a more rigorous challenge. It is therefore to 1945 that we first turn to observe the beginnings of Plaid’s rise to electoral significance in the heartland of Labour Wales. In January 1945, the Welsh Nation published a list of the officers and organisational presence of the party in South Wales. Fifteen branches covering the major towns and universities together with some of those radical, out of the way places that seemed always to be ahead of the curve: Caerphilly, Cardiff, Swansea, Barry, Ystalyfera, Cwmllynfell, and a few months later Ystradgynlais. By the end of the year branches had been formed in Tylorstown and Penygraig in the Rhondda, and early in the following year at Aberdare.

In the mid-1940s, Plaid’s largest base in South Wales was at Ystalyfera. Once a stronghold of the ILP and one of the most important Labour newspapers from Wales, Llais Llafur, Ystalyfera is notable as the home of the Welsh-Jewish writer Lily Tobias. As Jasmine Donahaye’s recent biography brilliantly shows, Tobias’s writings set in Wales frequently explore the interplay between socialism, zionism and nationalism – forces that shaped Tobias’s own politics. In her story, The Nationalists, which presents a discussion between Idris Hughes, a Welsh nationalist, and his two Jewish friends Leah Klein and Israel Kovman (who rejects Zionism), Tobias considers very carefully the arguments for and against not only an independent Welsh nation but a Jewish homeland in as well. It was Wynne Samuel, who had joined Plaid Cymru in the 1930s together with a group of local miners and tinplate workers, who was the driving force behind the party’s significant presence in the village. He was elected by the people of Ystalyfera onto Pontardawe Rural District Council – one of the first Plaid Cymru councillors anywhere in South Wales – and used his local popularity as the basis of his by-election campaign for the Neath constituency in May 1945. He polled over 6,000 votes and a share of some sixteen percent – not bad considering he was Plaid’s first ever parliamentary candidate in South Wales. When he stood again at the General Election that summer, however, he polled little more than half that figure and came bottom of the poll. Interestingly, the party did not stand again in Neath until 1970.

1946 saw two further by-elections which pointed to the growing potential of Plaid Cymru in the South Wales Coalfield: at Ogmore in June and at Aberdare in December. The former saw Trefor Morgan run aided by Wynne Samuel as agent. Morgan polled over 5,500 votes and nearly thirty percent of the vote in a two-way contest with Labour. At Aberdare, Samuel himself stood and won twenty percent of the vote (or around 7,000 votes). The agent in that election was D.O. Roberts, a secondary school teacher and co-founder of the Undeb Athrawon Cymreig (the Welsh Union of Teachers) in 1924. The UAC was merged with Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru (UCAC) in the 1940s. Elsewhere in the South Wales Coalfield in 1945, Plaid’s parliamentary polling was more modest. Kitchener Davies, standing in Rhondda East, polled a little over 2,000 votes in a contest more famous for the near miss of Harry Pollitt. Davies enjoyed the same level of success when he switched to Rhondda West in 1950.

The year before, Gwynfor Evans succeeded in being elected to Carmarthenshire County Council, the first time that Plaid had taken a seat at that level of government in South Wales – the only other seat that party held was on Caernarfonshire County Council. Ironically, that same election saw Labour take control of Carmarthenshire for the first time and Evans began a long tussle with the Labour machine, particularly over the use of the Welsh language. Evans endeavoured to have the language made the official language of Carmarthenshire County Council and had some success in 1951 when road signs in the county were changed to conform to standardised Welsh orthography. It was a notable enough change to make the ‘Foreign Parts’ column of the Hartlepool Mail!

In 1954, Gwynfor Evans stood as the parliamentary candidate in the Aberdare by-election – his presence providing not inconsiderable stimulus to the party in the constituency and branches were established at Ynysybwl, Abercynon and Mountain Ash as a result. Evans took around sixteen percent of the vote and caused a minor sensation. The Daily Express for example ran the headline: ‘Welsh Home Rule Men Seize Votes, Socialists Shocked’. In a forerunner of later very successful by-election campaigns, Evans sought to galvanise local enthusiasms by making his pitch to modernity and local interest. As Rhys Evans observes, ‘every effort was made to associate Plaid Cymru with success on the rugby field and the legendary boxer Dai Dower. Music was also used and, for the first time, singing became a central part of the Plaid Cymru armoury’. It was in Ynysybwl that Plaid would achieve their most notable success of the mid-1950s, at least in the central coalfield. Where the Conservatives found ‘cold, hostile indifference’, internal splits in the Labour Party opened the way for Plaid to make a fair stab at winning a seat on Mountain Ash Urban District Council. In May 1955, Idwal Davies won nearly 500 votes for the party but failed to dislodge long-standing Labour councillor Abel Morgan. Later that year William Woosnam, also a Labour councillor for the village, retired heralding a by-election. This took place in November 1955 and Idwal Davies contested against R. J. Jones (apparently the most hated man in Ynysybwl at the time) winning a remarkable victory. He went on to hold the seat at the local government elections in May 1956.

Idwal Davies was the Welsh-speaking secretary of the local branch of the Urdd, secretary of the village bathing pool committee and, despite being in his mid-thirties, a member of the executive committee of the Old Age Welfare Association. As the local newspaper observed of him, he was ‘a young man with a high code of moral conduct and earnestly devoted to his duty’. He was a deacon at the Tabernacl Chapel, which undoubtedly gave him a core of support. That Davies subsequently lost his seat in 1959 in the face of the full electoral force of the Lady Windsor Lodge is not really a surprise. Indeed in 1957 and 1958, the Plaid candidates lost by more than 500 votes to their Labour opponents, and in 1960 by nearly 900 votes. But the breakthrough had been made. Davies holds the distinction of being the first Plaid Cymru councillor elected in this part of the South Wales Coalfield and the first to be re-elected too. Good old Ynysybwl!

The year after Idwal Davies’s loss in Ynysybwl, Plaid won a seat on Rhondda Borough Council and another Labour citadel began to wobble: Dowlais. Thomas Ogwen Williams polled 1117 votes against Labour candidate Thomas John Evans’s 1286. It was the first time that Plaid had stood in Dowlais – indeed the local branch of Plaid had only been formed that year – and the result was a remarkable one. The following year, Plaid took the seat dislodging W. D. Sheene who had represented the ward for nine years. Later in the year the party won a second seat on Merthyr council (for Penydarren ward) and then in February 1962 it won a third in the iconic Plymouth Ward. The victorious candidate was 35 year old Gwyn Griffiths, who ran the Bridge Café in Troedyrhiw. A keen sportsman, he was also secretary of the local ex-serviceman’s club. Hardly your typical pacifist teacher typical of Plaid Cymru in earlier years! He was also able to take advantage of a strike by Amalgamated Engineering Union workers in the borough. The man he beat, remarkably, was the secretary of the local branch of the Labour Party. In its polling the Merthyr Express found that Griffiths had enjoyed the support of factory workers and the elderly who had been activated by a vigorous door-to-door campaign conducted by Plaid Cymru.

And then, in a fit of over-enthusiasm, Plaid erred. The local party held a meeting in March 1962 at which Wynne Samuel was selected as parliamentary candidate for the next General Election. At that meeting Gwyn Griffiths had reflected on the party’s ‘appeal to youth and its capacity for hard work’. All well and good, you might think, but the local MP was SO Davies – the man who had presented the most far reaching Home Rule bill for Wales of the twentieth century and, more than any other figure, represented advanced Welsh nationalism in the House of Commons. Letters appeared in the Merthyr Express lamenting Plaid’s decision to run a candidate with a universal feeling being that ‘when the case for home rule will again come before Parliament I will be quite content to leave it in the hands of SO’. Within a few years Plaid had lost all of its seats on Merthyr council and did not recover its position until the early 1970s. It was a costly misjudgement and one that should never have been made. Only in 1976, when Plaid took control of Merthyr, did the party make good on the promise of the early 1960s.

Lower down the Taff valley, in Pontypridd, Plaid experience enough of a growth spurt in the 1960s that the town’s MP, Arthur Pearson, warned Labour supporters that ‘nationalism draws young people on to extremes’ and insisted that the party lacked ‘true vision’. Constituency organisation in Pontypridd only began in 1966 so to have rattled the local MP was not bad going. The reason for these concerns was that Plaid Cymru in Pontypridd were projecting themselves – and in fact simply were – as a younger and more gender equal party. When the Rhondda ward branch (covering Trehafod and Hopkinstown) was established in September 1967, for example, three of the five officers on the committee were women and the branch had a deliberate aim to set up a ward youth section to complement the constituency youth section and mirroring the Ynysybwl branch. Members were typically disgruntled Labourites or former Communists – they spoke the language of Labour but were free to be openly critical of the party’s economic policies, something which stood the party in very good stead in places such as Ebbw Vale, Abertillery and Ammanford for instance.

And yet Plaid Cymru were not successful in Pontypridd as they were in the Rhondda or in Merthyr Tydfil and we might ask why. The most obvious answer is this, I think: the Liberal Party in Pontypridd remained very strong in the 1960s and very nearly wrested control of the urban district from Labour at the end of the decade. In such an environment, Plaid simply could not compete. When Plaid took control of Merthyr in 1976, the Merthyr Express may have argued that it was because Plaid spoke as socialists, however external commentators – such as the Spectator – felt that Plaid’s victory was because they were Liberals with a Welsh accent. It is also true that despite the staleness of Pontypridd Labour in the 1950s and 1960s, the party avoided high profile spats as occurred in the Rhondda. No Pontypridd councillor denounced his party – as Treorchy Councillor Rufus Roderick did in 1967: ‘We talk about being democratic; we could do with a good spring clean ourselves. The whole Rhondda Labour Party could do with a good spring clean’.

It’s easy to cherry pick results like this and present them as more significant (or, indeed, less significant) than they actually were. There certainly were very few Plaid Cymru councillors in South Wales in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But the places where they were elected, the communities that elected them, and the language that they spoke, all adds a layer of nuance to the ideological shifts that the party underwent in the post-war years. It was, after all, the South Wales branches that really pushed the social justice and equality agenda that radically altered Plaid Cymru’s political language in the 1970s and pulled the party to the left. More grassroots work needs to be done to really trace these changes properly and to fully appreciate just how significant the ‘southernification’ (horrible word!) of Plaid Cymru has been over the last fifty years or so. And, in consequence of that, to understand the role of Plaid Cymru in renewing Welsh social democracy over the same period. One noticeable factor in the 1960s is the rapid growth of youth sections coupled with a form of counter-cultural politics that hasn’t ever been properly explored by scholars. By the end of the 1960s there were 52 youth branches around Wales, of which 13 were in Glamorgan, 7 in Monmouthshrie, 17 in the North, and 14 in West Wales. The remaining branch was located in Mid Wales.

In his well-known study of Plaid Cymru, Allan Butt Philip remarked that it was only in 1970 that the strength of the party could be properly assessed in industrial Wales. This is a false conclusion I think but it is one that has served to blind scholars to the importance of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to the modernisation of Plaid as a political machine at the local level. Note, for instance, Laura McAllister’s reflection that ‘local government became a more important part of Plaid’s electoral activities from the 1970s onwards’. There’s an earlier history waiting to be uncovered, necessarily so if Plaid’s full history is ever to be written.

I began with a leading question – Why does the party appear to stutter at moments when it might otherwise have been expected to have done very well indeed? – and it seems apt, in drawing the blog to a close to think of an answer to it. One reason that Plaid often stutters when it ought otherwise to be doing very well is that it makes simple and costly mistakes. Ambition led the party to stand a candidate against SO Davies in 1964 but it was stupid given SO’s fundamental commitment to Welsh self-government, to the Welsh language, and to many of the things that Plaid Cymru believed in. You couldn’t out-do SO on the left and running at him from the right was political suicide. In the early 1970s, when Plaid courted SO’s political circle, they succeeded and eventually won control of the council – they occupied his political space and worked with him. In 1972 Emrys Roberts was even projected as SO’s heir. Communities think about themselves in particular ways, it is part of their ‘imagined’ sense of place. Projecting that, from local to national, when you are stuck still having to navigate three ideological inheritances, is enormously difficult.

Labour needs only to project to one broad community to win – it tried presenting itself with a rural voice in the middle of the twentieth century with a degree of success but the party’s heart was never really in it. Who can think of Labour winning Brecon and Radnor today, a seat it held 1929-1931 and continuously from 1939 until 1979. One way Plaid wins is by doing just that, I suppose, speaking the language of the Valleys and relatively little else. But given the rise of UKIP in the valleys and not inconsiderable disquiet about immigration, are the political instincts of the former coalfield really where the imagination tells us they should be? Perhaps it has long been this way. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, young people inside the Labour Party in the coalfield were deeply frustrated with what they saw as a lack of genuine socialist spirit, latent racism and homophobia, and muted internationalism. And when protests were raised by the NUM in South Wales about the confiscation of Paul Robeson’s passport, for example, Pontypridd Labour Party refused to join in. Received memory is a terrible thing to trade on.

What holds us back then is conservatism: cultural conservatism and social conservatism and political conservatism. Wales is, ironically given our self-ascribed ‘radicalism’, now a deeply conservative country. We like things as they were and we don’t much want them to change. This is the legacy of post-war Labour dominance of the Welsh electoral system. It is also the legacy of a nation that is thoroughly stagnant. At one time Plaid Cymru offered a way of renewing that political system by making politics younger, more gender equal, and more attuned to linguistic, racial and sexual diversity. That is the party’s legacy over the last sixty years – I hesitate to say ninety as I hesitate to say anything positive about Saunders Lewis. Ever. But what next? Be’ nesa? I suppose that really is the question of the day, for both parties!