Voting for a new Britain: Plaid Cymru gains from Labour in key rural battlefield

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PLAID CYMRU, the Welsh nationalist party, looks set to profit at the expense of Labour in the critical Mid and West Wales battleground, according to an opinion poll last night

Support for the nationalists in the largely rural area, which covers eight Westminster constituencies, is said to have increased from 20 per cent at the1997 general election to 31 per cent. Labour support fell from 38 to 36 per cent, with the Tories' share falling from 20 to 16 per cent. The Liberal Democrats' share rose from 12 to 15 per cent.

These figures in an NOP poll for HTV refer to voting intentions for first- past-the-post candidates. When respondents were asked how they would use their second vote on the parties' proportional representation (PR) lists, Plaid Cymru remained steady at 31 per cent, with Labour on 32 per cent, the Tories on 15 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent.

The figures suggest the nationalists may take the marginal Carmarthen East seat from Labour, allowing Alun Michael, Secretary of State for Wales, to be elected from the "top-up" PR list. If Labour retains the seat, his chances will disappear.

The 1,500 people polled were also asked to name the party leader they believed would be the most effective "prime minister". Dafydd Wigley, Plaid Cymru leader, was top with 48 per cent, Alun Michael scored 32 per cent, Rod Richards (Tory) 14 and Mike German (Liberal Democrats) 6.

But while there was encouraging poll news for Plaid Cymru, internal divisions over independence led to the establishment of a new grouping of independent nationalists.

Two members of Gwynedd County Council, who want Wales to go it alone, have formed a new hardline alliance and have been returned unopposed. Owain Williams and Evan Hall Griffith believe that a number of colleagues in North Wales will join them. They say there is considerable disaffection with the assertion by Mr Wigley that his organisation had "never, ever" supported independence.

However, Mr Wigley said last night that in the Fifties, Plaid Cymru argued that Wales should become part of a "Britannic confederation", but now it was arguing for the country to be part of a United States of Europe, which he believed would be established within the next four years or so.