The Working Men's Conservative Club in Caernarfon has seen better days: Arfon is a Plaid Cymru-Labour marginal.

The Working Men’s Conservative Club in Caernarfon has seen better days: Arfon is a Plaid Cymru-Labour marginal.

To take the train from Chester along the north Wales coast is to enter into a world that feels about as remote from Westminster as is possible.

Hulking cargo ships chug, apparently motionlessly, down the River Dee with the Wirral in the background; the station names begin a gradual shift from similarity between their Welsh and English versions (“Fflint” versus “Flint”; “Bae Colwyn” versus “Colwyn Bay”) to being unrecognisable to an English monoglot like myself (“Caergybi” versus “Holyhead”); in due course, Edward I’s castles, built to remind the medieval Welsh of England’s supposed dominace, start to pockmark the landscape.

In Caernarfon, poet and Plaid Cymru activist Iwan Rhys agrees: “You write mainly to perform – there’s a strong oral tradition in Wales. I took part in a poetry competition on BBC Cymru recently… How many other cultures in the world would you have 32 teams of poets competing against each other on the radio?

“You feel like you’re living in a completely different part of the world [from the rest of the UK].”

Caernarfon and Bangor are the two main population centres of the constituency of Arfon, a Plaid Cymru-Labour marginal and the smallest seat on the British mainland (electorate: 41,138). Beyond other Plaid strongholds in Wales, there is really no comparison for the electoral contest here – Scottish seats where the choice was between the SNP and Labour might have been comparable in 2010, but the political situation in Scotland has been altered, perhaps irrevocably, by the independence referendum last September.

And in an election where every seat counts, Labour HQ ignores its battles against Plaid at its peril.

A key part of why Arfon, and north-west Wales generally, feels so different is presence and strength of the Welsh language. It’s much less true of Bangor, but walk through the town centre of Caernarfon, and the conversations you’ll hear are just as much Welsh as you will English.

Indeed, for many here, English is a second language. “I live on an estate on the edge of Caernarfon,” says Rhys. “88% of people there speak Welsh. Some of them really struggle with English… You should see me after a drink or two, or when I’m tired. My wife has to finish [English] sentences for me.”

Recent research by Gwynedd and Anglesey councils estimated the percentage of Welsh-speakers in Gwynedd, the local government area in which Arfon is located, was 65.4 per cent, as opposed to the average across Wales of 19 per cent.

Plaid Cymru has always tended to be strongest in areas where there is a large percentage of fluent Welsh speakers, and the promotion of the Welsh language has continuously been a core part of Plaid’s rasion d’être. Its very first publication, Egwyddorian Cenedlaetholdeb (“Principles of Nationalism”: 1926), insisted on restoring the Welsh language to a very prominent place in society:

“Welsh should be made the sole medium of education from the elementary school to university… [Welsh] must be Wales’ only official language, the language of government in Wales, the language of every county, town, and district council, of the council-workers themselves and of the law-courts. Every public medium… must also be in Welsh, and used to strengthen and elevate the Welsh concept.”

Cai Larsen, a headteacher and Plaid Cyrmu activist, is keen to point out that Plaid’s strength in Welsh-speaking areas is not due to “tribal loyalties”: “The language you speak has implications on how you vote. We’re not talking about tribal loyalties, like in Northern Ireland – these are just statistical trends.”

In many ways, however, Plaid’s initial goals of resuscitating the Welsh language have been achieved. The Welsh Language Act (1967) removed various legislative problems in using Welsh in courts and statutory forms, and the Welsh Language Act (1993) established a Welsh Language Board – since replaced by the Welsh Language Commissioner – to promote further use of Welsh by both public and private bodies. That said, there is always more to be done, of course – to the alarm of many, including the Welsh Assembly, the 2011 Census showed a continued decline in the usage of Welsh.

But with the maintenance and promotion of Welsh firmly on the official political agenda in Wales, the Welsh language has become something of a problem for Plaid Cymru. “We’re so associated with the language some people feel that if they don’t speak Welsh they can’t vote Plaid – though all the parties back the language now,” says a Plaid Member of the Welsh Assembly.

Iwan Rhys, the Plaid-supporting poet, agrees: “Plaid can be scared of using it [Welsh] – they don’t want to scare away voters.”

The other principal nationalist party of the UK, the SNP, has gone from strength to strength in recent months. Polls suggest the SNP will obliterate Labour’s hold on Scotland in six weeks. The SNP’s huge successes, and the relative lack of change in Plaid’s fortunes, seem particularly odd when 20% of the Welsh population speak Welsh and only 1% of the Scottish population speaks Gaelic.

A large part of Plaid’s problem, according to its activists, is the lack of national media outlets for Wales.

“There’s the Western Mail for south Wales,” says Rhys, “and the Daily Post for north Wales, but that reads more like a local newspaper… Newsnight has a Scottish version, but there isn’t one for Wales, so people will watch education policy being discussed, but that’s an entirely devolved issue and people don’t necessarily realise that.”

The smaller population of Wales – 3 million as opposed to Scotland’s 5 million – makes it less economically worthwhile for media organisations to bring out Wales-specific editions. So theMirror, the Sun, the Times, and the Daily Mail all produce daily Scottish versions, with lots of Scotland-specific news, but no London-based newspaper sees fit to do the same for Wales.

There is also a larger number of English-born people living in Wales than in Scotland. The 2011 Census put the figure for Scotland at 9 per cent, and Wales’ at 21 per cent. The English-born are clearly less likely to vote for a party whose long-term aims include independence from England, although there are some: Liz Saville-Roberts, who is likely to become Plaid’s first female MP (for Dwyfor Meirionnydd), was born in Eltham, south-east London, and only learnt Welsh as a student at Aberystwyth.

Plaid activists also like to hark back further in time, pointing out that “Wales was subsumed by England much earlier,” according to Rhys, and that Scotland “already had the paraphernalia of a state: a separate legal system, ancient universities, and so on,” according to a Plaid member of the Welsh Assembly.

For several decades, Plaid has been fighting off accusations that it is a right-wing party. Gwynfor Evans, a former Plaid Cymru leader and their first MP, authored a spirited 10-page leaflet in 1944 attacking those who suggested Plaid was a fascist movement. “The bigger the lie the better, is one of Hitler’s noble maxims,” he provocatively wrote.

In more recent years, a Plaid Cymru Assembly member, Mohammad Asghar, made headlines when he switched from Plaid to the Conservative Party. Admittedly, Asghar has been looser than many in his party allegiances: he has also been a Labour Party member.

When I have a drink with Alun Pugh, the Labour candidate for Arfon, he suggests that Plaid is perfectly able to incorporate right-wing, as well as left-wing, elements: “The thing that unites Plaid is a desire for Welsh independence. There are left-wing members, but also right-wing ones… This former miner’s son will not accept that Plaid is on his left.”

Plaid activists are keen to deny this. “We basically don’t fish in the same pool as the Tories: people vote for us or Labour,” says Cai Larsen, the headteacher.

Iwan Rhys suggests that, although the occasional Plaid voter is motivated by anti-English sentiments, this is far from widespread: “There are individuals who are racists, but they’re idiots. They’d be as attracted to UKIP – it wouldn’t necessarily translate into support for Plaid.”

Rhys and Larsen are both keen to emphasise that the membership of Plaid is decidedly left-wing. “Plaid is left-wing,” Larsen insists flatly. Rhys, who worked for the successful campaign in 2012 to elect Leanne Wood as leader of Plaid Cymru, explains, “When Leanne Wood was elected, of all the nominees she was seen as the most left-wing, and she won comfortably. There’s a perception that Plaid supporters are more right-wing in north Wales and more left-wing in south Wales, but even here there was lots of support for Leanne.”

Caernarfon Castle, built by Edward I, looms over Caernarfon town centre

In Arfon, the contest is complicated by the fact that neither Alun Pugh, Labour’s candidate, and Hywel Williams, the current Plaid MP, are untainted by association with ruling parties. Both are representatives of government – Labour, under Carwyn Jones, currently runs the Welsh Assembly, whereas Gwynedd, the local council, is run by Plaid.

In fact, since Westminster is run by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the constituents of Arfon are represented by about as many parties as they possibly could be, which might confuse some in apportioning success and blame.

“People tend to blame local cuts on the Plaid council, but they’re just passing on cuts from the [Labour-run] Assembly,” says an activist, “though it’s difficult to get people to realise that.”

But surely the Assembly is just reacting to cuts from Westminster? “We tend to stop at the Assembly, though they’re only passing on cuts from the Tories in London… We generally only raise that if the person we’re talking to wants to.”

The cuts to Gwynedd Council, and across the board, may, however, eventually help Plaid, who have recently positioned themselves as ‘anti-austerity’ and willing partners of the Greens and SNP on the issue. Leanne Wood, Plaid’s leader; Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett recently issued a joint statement, describing the general election as a chance to “battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity”.

This is in contrast to the middling approach taken by the Labour leadership; in a recent lecture Ed Miliband promised to continue to “cut spending”, but has denounced the Tory spending cuts announced in the budget as “colossal”.

“Generally in Wales, people think Plaid can’t form a government, but it’s different this time,” says Larsen. “We’ll almost certainly hold the balance of power… We don’t generally have a narrative that fits into a general election, but this time we do,” he continues, referring to Plaid’s anti-austerity pledges, in contrast to Labour’s austerity-lite.

Hywel Williams, Plaid MP for Arfon

Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon

When I later meet Hywel Williams, Afron’s MP, in his office in Caernarfon, he is quick to point out that his two-year-old son, currently running around his feet, is not necessarily going to follow in his father’s footsteps. “If it was Labour, he’d be lined up as the next MP,” Williams laughs. “There’s no career progression in Plaid – although that’s changing because of the Assembly.”

I ask Williams what the big issues facing his constituents are. Housing, disability benefits, and healthcare are the first that he mentions.

The next that comes up is immigration – hardly surprising, perhaps. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI put “immigration/immigrants” as the most commonly reported “most important issue facing Britain today”; Wales isn’t immune. But the concerns of Williams’ constituents on immigration turn out to be rather different from most.

“There’s lots of immigration work in Bangor [where both the university and the hospital employ and educate a substantial non-UK population],” he says. “There are problems with visas, families are being threatened with being returned [to their country of origin].”

I point out to Williams how very different this is from a lot of the UK. “The minority ethnic population is small and generally perceived as a good thing,” he says. “The black doctor is generally accepted – I’m a sociologist by trade, that’s why I think in these terms.”

Williams also brings up low-paid work and insecure contracts – a subject that Plaid Cymru has spent a significant amount of time campaigning on. This is all very well, but Plaid has recently been accused of employing large numbers of people on zero-hour contracts.

A Freedom of Information request issued by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in January showed that 3,986 people employed by Plaid Cymru-led councils (Gwynedd, Conwy, and Ceredigion) were paid less than the living wage (£7.85) and 590 people were employed on zero-hours contracts. Alun Pugh, Williams’ Labour rival, seized on this contemptuously at the time, “That’s your sharing-caring Plaid Cymru for you.”

Williams retaliates that the proportion of people on zero-hour contracts in Gwynedd is low: 186, against a total of around 2,000 employees. “Wage increases have been for the bottom, not the top – no one is working on minimum wage; the lowest is around £7.50 an hour.”

“In Gwynedd the difference between the lowest paid and the highest paid is around eight times. It’s more like one to twelve elsewhere [in Wales],” he adds.

***

For all that Plaid Cymru’s concerns are local, however, the party also takes up certain international causes. Williams’ political interests, as listed on parliament’s website, include Kurdish issues and international development, as well as more predictable things like social security and social work.

“Plaid came across the Kurds in the early 90s,” Williams says. “Electorally, it’s entirely pointless… But it’s a language that’s oppressed in a way that takes my breath away.”

Williams moves on to a general description of his identity, in which London, rather than England, is the obstacle: “Our world view is Wales and the world – London is a very big mountain to get around.

“I tend to see myself as Welsh and European.” Not British at all? “I see myself as British in the classical sense – in the sense that we’re part of the British Isles. But it’s about whether you have the key to your own door.”

Alun Pugh is Labour's candidate for Arfon

Alun Pugh is Labour’s candidate for Arfon

Labour’s Alun Pugh, unsurprisingly, incorporates Britain more firmly into his political outlook – he has little time for any suggestion of independence for Wales. “Are we serious about [Cymru] having a seat in the UN next to Cuba?” he asks rhetorically.

All the same, he is keener for more devolution to Wales, for instance in policing. “I would go further than some of my colleagues; for example I’d like to see policing devolved to Cardiff.

“If policing was controlled by the Assembly, we would never have had police commissioners. Do you know what percentage of the electorate turned up to one polling station in Newport?” he asks, referring to the election of police commissioners in 2012, where turnout was exceptionally low across the board.

5%?

“Lower.”

1%?

“Lower.”

0.1%?

“Lower.”

We played this game for a while – the answer was exactly 0%. A contemporary report in the South Wales Argus makes clear that Newport City Council was not inclined to name the polling station, though best guesses were that it was at Bettws, Newport.

Pugh is a long-standing Labour supporter and politician, having joined the party at 19 “after a couple of years of trying – I think they lost my application.” He was among the first members of the Welsh Assembly, representing the Labour-Conservative marginal of Clwyd West, and becoming Minister for Culture, Welsh language and Sport in 2003. He lost his seat in 2007.

He gives me a short family history. “My father was a miner and so was my grandfather. My great-grandfather was an agricultural labourer and couldn’t speak any English… My grandfather spent his 18th birthday in a trench [in WWI], probably wetting himself with fear – I would have been… It’s one of the reasons why the EU is so important to me.”

After the First World War, his grandfather ended up in Rhondda to work in the mines – a reasonably international, and therefore English-speaking, community at the time. This was also where Pugh was brought up, meaning he didn’t learn Welsh until his career in education took him to Gwynedd in 1992. “I really wished I could speak Welsh, I always felt there was something missing.”

In terms of the next marginal constituency that he may or may not represent in May, he agrees with Williams that issues around health and low-paid work are key to this constituency. “There are serious problems in the Welsh NHS. It’s a post-industrial society here, and there’s a lot of sickness from poverty and mining accidents.”

On low-paid work, he points out that there are few World Heritage Sites, such as Caernarfon castle, that are neighbours with a Poundstretcher store.

And is Pugh confident about his chances? “I simply don’t know. It’s impossible to predict the result here. National opinion polls don’t count for anything – [so] unless Lord Ashcroft were to do something… A lot of people say they don’t know who they’ll vote for, though sometimes that’s just to get you off their doorstep.”

What may play into Pugh’s hands is that Labour, unlike Plaid, could conceivably form a majority government. After all, however unlikely it seems that Labour will win actually enough seats to do so, even if Plaid won every last one of Wales’ forty seats, they would still have fewer MPs than the Lib Dems currently have.

Pugh, therefore, is in a position to appeal to certain voters on certain interests that Plaid never could, such as tuition fees for English students studying in Bangor. “Our announcement on student fees [to reduce them to £6,000] will be attractive to some students, though not Welsh ones.

“Currently Dafydd and David sit next to each other in lectures. Dafydd pays £3,000 and David plays £9,000,” Pugh points out, referring to the fact that the Welsh Assembly has maintained tuition fees at pre-2012 levels. It is not entirely clear how and when Labour’s proposals would be put into effect, but “it will certainly affect first years,” says Pugh.

He is working full-time on his campaign, and has been doing so for the past eighteen months, thanks to the support, financial and mental, of his wife.

Shouldn’t the Labour Party be doing more to support its candidates? How would a traditionally working-class candidate actually be able to run a campaign? “It’s a big problem for young working-class candidates,” he acknowledges. “But the Labour Party just doesn’t have the money; we’re already being outspent by the Tories… It’s a real problem for democracy if only those with means can stand: we don’t talk nearly enough about class.”

Outside politics, Pugh’s hobbies include mountaineering, which seems suitable for a constituency that includes a sizeable chunk of Snowdonia. “The café at the top of Snowdon and half the trig point is in the constituency,” notes Pugh.

“Don’t refer to it as the highest place in England and Wales. It’s also the highest place in Wales and the Maldives, or Wales and the Isles of Scilly. What is this thing called England and Wales?”

A version of this article was published in May2015, the New Statesman’s guide to the general election.