Ceredigion might well be a four horse race, with Labour and the Conservatives competitive at this election as well as Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.
That’s the opinion of the incumbent Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake who pulled off an unexpected 104-vote win in 2017, unseating the Liberal Democrat Mark Williams.
Ben Lake told Nation.Cymru that Brexit may well have changed things in the area, despite 55% of the population voting to Remain in the 2016 referendum.
“More often or not, Ceredigion politics is quite unique and tends to be quite stubbornly resilient to the outside world when it comes to politics and tends to do things its own way,” Ben Lake said.
“What will be interesting in this election is whether or not it stays true to that course… whether we’ll see a resurgence to the Conservative or Labour force – and in a way, might we see the beginning of the ‘nationalisation’ of Ceredigion politics?
“I wouldn’t discount the Conservative vote. I’ve never canvassed a door in a town before this election to someone who says they’re voting Conservative. And I get that every day, and I’m not overplaying that.”
In the last election, the Conservatives’ Ruth Davis 18.4% of the vote, compared to Plaid’s 29.2% and the Lib Dems’ 29.0%. Labour got slightly more with 20.2%.
“You’d be a fool to take Ceredigion for granted,” Ben Lake said. “104 is a very close result, and although there were closer margins, given that Ceredigion is very much a three horse or four horse race this time around – or at least that’s the feeling of it. 104 can vanish very quickly.
“I think I tell people we don’t want Ceredigion to be a safe seat. Because being a marginal means whoever’s your MP will work pretty damn hard to retain or win the seat and surely that’s ultimately a good thing for the county.
“Although at the moment perhaps, it pains me to say it’s great to be a marginal seat when I’m standing in a marginal seat, overall I think it’s a very good thing
“And if only all seats perhaps could enjoy the same sorts of effects on its candidates, I think the Governance of the country would be in a better place.”
Despite competing in a more crowded field former MP Mark Williams, who is standing once more for the Liberal Democrats, said he believed he could win the seat back.
He felt that a break from the political bubble have been beneficial after 12 years as an MP but that he was now ready to return to Westminster.
“I suppose the first reaction is a little bit of worry about what’s going to happen next, but, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to go back into teaching,” he says of losing his seat in 2017.
“Into primary education. In fact, an opportunity arose to back to the school in Powys where I was teaching before. Some would say out of the bubble, back into the real world. Education as well as politics has been one of my passions for a very long time – so it’s been good.
“I think I’ve been involved in Liberal politics for years and years and I don’t think it ever leaves you. I’ve been busy in all things issues politics really. I’ve done a certain amount for veterans through my work with the British Legion. I chaired a campaign… actually it was against the Plaid led Council in Ceredigion in shutting down an old people’s home. A cross-party campaign I should emphasise.
“I now chair a forum for what we call the North Ceredigion forum for older persons care which is campaigning on care issues – making sure dementia services are sufficient in the county and to help a plethora of adult care issues.
“And I think politics never quite leaves you and I think the inevitable thing is actually when an election comes along – you should take part, put your head above the parapet, and stand for the county – let the electorate make their choice.”
Despite the threat that the Conservatives could make ground in Ceredigion as a result of Brexit, Mark Williams said he was a strong backer of the Liberal Democrat position of scrapping article 50 and staying in without a referendum.
“The number one thing is that we have to stop a very dangerous no-deal Brexit,” he said, “I worry about the prospects of this constituency, whether it be some of the big capital infrastructure projects, whether it be some of the community projects that have been funded by the EU and particularly the position of the farming industry.
“I think we need a strong voice to articulate that concern – not only for Ceredigion – certainly across rural Wales. We need strong voices to defend this county if we have a dangerous no-deal Brexit, which could well be the eventuality.”
Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats’ position on Brexit is similar in that both parties want to put a stop to it – and they have joined in a Remain alliance elsewhere in Wales.
However, Plaid Cymru want a second referendum rather than to revoke Article 50 outright.
Ben Lake said that he prided himself on Plaid Cymru’s stance but also appreciates that many of his constituents feel differently.
“I’ve found because we, as a party, have been consistent in our position – and also then been willing to engage people on what is a very difficult or divisive issue – that people on the doorstep, even if they are Leavers, and they’re very clear that they can’t support me because of their position – I’ve found them very willing to engage positively in debate,” he said.
“I think one point of consensus across all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, is that Brexit is a mess,” he said. “Plaid Cymru have been quite consistent in the aftermath of the referendum in 2016, we made the case quite quickly that Brexit had not been defined clearly enough. And where there was a path for a potential way forward, which was the continued membership of the single market and customs union.
“Sadly there was no desire to compromise in the previous Parliament. We thought, well hang on, if the Government or any other person for that matter wishes to take us into any harder form of Brexit, it has to be verified by a referendum.”
But despite many commentators believing this is the ‘Brexit election,’ Ben Lake disagrees.
“Now – some argue this general election will offer a verdict. I disagree. It’s a difficult and dangerous precedent to set that an election can give you a mandate on a binary issue – especially one that’s already been dealt with by a referendum,” he said.
“After all, a Government can get a majority in Parliament on less than 50% of the popular vote, so it’s a very dangerous precedent to set on both sides.
“If we have a referendum this time, different from 2016, there’ll be a detailed proposal to represent the Leave option and so nobody can question that they didn’t know what Leave was then.
“They’ll know the full facts, they’ll have it in front of them, they can make an informed decision. And my party would campaign to Remain, of course.
“I know some are proponents of unilateral revocation of article 50. I can see the desire to do that.
“But I think I’m happier with Plaid Cymru’s position of let’s put it to a referendum because my fear is that if we don’t settle it in a democratic vote by a referendum we’re just going to have endless debates about whether or not it was right or wrong – who should have the final say?”
With an alliance between Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in place elsewhere in Wales, should the Liberal Democrats have stood down in Ceredigion?
The candidates from both main parties told Nation.Cymru that with the result so close last time, it was best for democracy that both stood again this time to give the voters a choice.
“I wasn’t in any discussions that were taking place,” Mark Williams said. “I asked questions and from what I’ve been told, Plaid Cymru never suggested the Lib Dems should stand down in Ceredigion.
“I think the people of Ceredigion can take some assurance the fact at least in the past the two front-runners have certainly been pro-European and people can make their choice. Pluralism is there to be practiced with a full choice of candidates.”
However, he agrees with Ben Lake that Brexit is not the only issue that has been animating voters at this election, and wants to focus in particular on health services.
“Adult social care is a priority,” he said. “There is a continuing fight for adequate funding for Wales as a country.
“I think there’ve been positive steps in the past, including giving the Assembly some tax-raising powers, but at the end of the day, the Barnett formula is still there and we need to address that.
“I think that’s more important than ever if we are to be in a Brexit situation because, my goodness, we’re going to have a big pressure on our finances should that happen.”
The Liberal Democrat candidate said he also felt that the relationship between the public and politicians had changed in the last two years, and not for the better.
“We’ve also got to start rebuilding trust. I’m not criticising any party in particular – but any candidate in this election, going around knocking on doors, knows there’s so much despondency about politics and politicians regardless of party – we’ve all got to start re-building that relationship,” he said.
“I think because of that negativity about politics, this is a tough election for all of us and I know that. I’ve spoken to Ben Lake, you know, me and Ben get along really well. I was talking to the Labour candidate on the streets in Penparcau, I think this is a tough election.
“It’s not tough because of any political dynamic at the moment, it’s tough because of this despondency with politics and one way or another.
“Whatever happens in individual constituencies. We’ve really got to work to re-build that trust. I’ve fought eight elections and it’s strange. There’s a very odd dynamic here.”
‘On the map’
Ceredigion’s economy and its ability to retain a young workforce is one of the main issues of concern for Ben Lake.
“When I was first elected, some of the big visions and one of the themes in my maiden speech was how we need to address the fact that Ceredigion in particular, and actually Wales in general is losing a lot of its youth – and that’s primarily down to job opportunities and economic opportunities,” he said.
“One of the things the last Parliament gave me the opportunity to pursue was the overall strategy for mid Wales – for Ceredigion and Powys. The mid-Wales growth deal”
It was announced by the ex-Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, that £55 milion was being used to encourage investment in the areas.
“While discussions have been ongoing – it’s still in it’s very early stages… having started to get stuck into this project,” Ben Lake said. “I’d be lying to say I wouldn’t want an opportunity to see the whole thing come to a conclusion.
“It’s not only a matter of getting investment in the area… but getting investment in the right areas and some of the themes in particular when it comes to the future.
“Agriculture, connectivity and digital infrastructure. It’s not only tentative in bringing growth and job opportunities to the area, but putting Ceredigion and mid-Wales on the map, for being leading lights in particular fields.”