Cefn Cribwr is a village outside Bridgend in South Wales. In a council by-election in March Kevin Burnell, the Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist) candidate, long used to coming second in this staunch working class enclave, surprised himself by trouncing Labour with 420 votes to 192. A straw in the wind?
A Swansea County Council by-election in June, in the Labour stronghold of Cockett, returned the first Plaid Cymru councillor to Swansea council for 20 years. In Aberdare the Labour controlled council callously moved to close the Gadlys residential home for the elderly mentally infirm. Unison organised a lobby of the council and launched a community campaign against the closure. At its 200 strong public meeting Labour councillors were given short shrift. Two Plaid Cymru councillors were elected onto the campaign committee. More straws in the wind?
Plaid Cymru's greatest electoral successes occurred in 1966-68, under a Labour administration that was turning sour. These were all in South Wales and all in Labour seats. Gwynfor Evans became the first ever Plaid Cymru MP in the Carmarthen by-election of July 1966. In March 1967 a by-election occurred in Rhondda West (where every party except Labour had lost its deposit just 12 months earlier). Plaid Cymru cut Labour's majority from 17,000 to 2,306, a swing of 30 percent. At Caerphilly in July 1968 Labour's majority tumbled from 21,000 to 1,874, a swing of 40 percent to Plaid Cymru.
Plaid Cymru became adept at facing both ways. It ditched its opposition to the EEC to woo the only people in Wales who clearly benefited from it, the (often Welsh speaking) hill farmers in North and West Wales. And it gradually adopted a left face which it deployed in the industrial south east. During the next Labour administration, from 1974-79, Plaid Cymru again appealed to disaffected Labour supporters, capturing Merthyr Tydfil council and Rhymney council from Labour in 1976.
All the evidence suggests that workers who voted for real change in May 1997 are just as angry today. If anything they are even more restless and defiant. Any party that can locate itself to the left of Labour could get a respectful hearing. This has not been mainly on the basis of nationalism. The postal workers, firefighters, rail workers, college lecturers and NHS workers who have been in dispute lately have looked across the border for solidarity and inspiration.
Plaid Cymru, with its 'Marxist' leader in Dafydd Ellis Thomas, its long standing opposition to nuclear power, to racism, its recent endorsement of the £4 minimum wage, has just declared itself a bilingual party. This makes it more user friendly to English speakers in the south east.
Next year's elections to the toothless Welsh Assembly arouse little interest at present. But workers' aspirations are guiding them well to the left of Tony Blair. Plaid Cymru may be uniquely well placed to capitalise on this current as an apparently reformist alternative to right wing Labour. Unfortunately most left forces in Wales eagerly approach the Assembly elections posing a Welsh solution to the problems facing Welsh workers. Unemployment, job insecurity, anti-union legislation, the minimum wage and poor services, of course, are the problems of the whole British working class.
Next year's elections will almost certainly serve as a focus for workers' anger and disillusionment. It is essential that there should be more on offer than the class collaboration of New Labour and the class collaboration of nationalism. Socialists will need to use the elections to promote a sense of workers changing society by their own self activity. And that implies solidarity with workers' struggles in the rest of Britain. We should not rule out standing candidates wherever such a tactic will help get this message across more clearly. But it is only a tactic. Working class unity can break the mould. National unity cannot.