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Is this hyper-marginal seat the best hope for a Lib Dem constituency gain?

05 May 2021 7 minute read
Jenny Rathbone. Picture by Senedd Cymru (CC BY 2.0). Right, Rodney Berman.

Lowri Pitcher

The last few years have not been kind to the Liberal Democrats.

At the previous Senedd election in 2016, the party, which had once dominated politics in Wales, polled only 7% of the national vote and returned just one member to the legislature.

Things don’t appear to have improved since then. It was wiped off the electoral map in Wales at the 2019 General Election, where it did not win a single seat.

Polling for the Senedd election has not been encouraging, with them at 3% across constituencies, and 4% on the regional lists, according to a recent survey. They are predicted to return one member to the Senedd yet again.

But the Lib Dems insist they can defy the pundits and pull off a victory in the hyper-marginal constituency of Cardiff Central.

Labour’s Jenny Rathbone kept her seat with a majority of only 817 votes the last time around, with the Liberal Democrats coming in a close second.

Since the seat’s creation back in 1999 it has only been held by two parties. Initially, the Liberal Democrats held it for more than ten years from 1999 until 2011. Then, in 2011 Labour’s Jenny Rathbone beat the Liberal Democrat candidate by a margin of only 38 votes.

Since the seat turned red in 2011 the Liberal Democrat party has come in a close second in every following Senedd election.

They have also previously held the constituency at Westminster, but it turned red at the UK Parliamentary election in 2015. Labour have won comfortable majorities at the last two General Elections. The Liberal Democrats came in third 2017 and 2019, polling behind the Conservatives.

Despite her narrow lead Jenny Rathbone says she believes Welsh Labour could get a boost and increase their majority at this election thanks to the First Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Mark Drakeford has won huge respect for his handling of the pandemic. It has illustrated the importance of being able to move fast to take decisions that reflect the public health situation in Wales,” she said.

However, Welsh Liberal Democrat candidate Rodney Berman, says it’s all still to play for.

“The result was close last time and the feedback on the doorstep indicates that it will be close again this time between Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

“The team and I have seen it go to the wire before and so we’ll use every minute of the time that’s left to push the Lib Dem message to Put Recovery First.

“We’ve defied the pundits here before with an under-the-radar campaign, and so there’s a very good chance we may do so again,” he said.

“Covid, Covid and Covid”

According to the candidates recovering from the Covid pandemic is one of the most frequent topics of conversations on doorstops.

Conservative candidate Calum Davies said: “Voters [he’s] spoken to in Cardiff Central are concerned mostly about recovering from the pandemic and Conservative plans to create 65,000 jobs – 15,000 of them green jobs – have been well received.”

He also says residents “certainly are not obsessing about the constitution like in other parties, so are happy to hear our priority is getting on with the day job.”

Rodney Berman said: “On the doorstep and across the constituency, it’s Covid, Covid and Covid.”

“Understandably, I think, many residents are telling us that they are concerned how we rebuild after Covid, repair the economy, get the NHS in Wales back on track and provide support for those in our schools and universities whose education has been so disrupted by Covid.”

He says residents have also welcomed the party’s pledges to do more to tackle the environmental crisis and to introduce a 24/7 mental health crisis service.

Meanwhile Plaid Cymru’s Wil Rees says poverty and the environment are two big talking points. These are “two issues which Labour have turned into box-ticking exercises rather than getting to grips with the problem,” he said.

The student vote

Cardiff Central, which is home to Cardiff University, has a younger population than many other areas in Wales. Only 13% of the constituency’s population is of retirement age while the Welsh average sits at 21%. At the 2019 General Election 56% of 18-24 year-olds voted Labour.

While many students have decided not to stay in their term time accommodation, Rodney Berman suggests “we might see a greater proportion of the students who vote this time within Cardiff Central being Welsh domiciled students,” given that “they, of course, may have been more directly impacted by decisions taken by the Welsh Government in recent years.”

Wil Rees who himself only graduated from Cardiff University last year thinks he’s possibly the best placed candidate “to understand the recent student experience throughout the pandemic and understand the wants and needs of students.”

“I have a strong record of having helped deliver positive change for students over the past few years, having played a part of the successful campaign to get the Welsh Government to ban letting agency fees in Wales, saving students hundreds of pounds in the process,” he said.

While out campaigning, Jenny Rathbone has also certainly noticed that “the halls of residence seem to be half empty as is obvious when I deliver leaflets there. It is also obvious that there are a lot fewer students living in shared rented houses mainly in Cathays and Plasnewydd.”

Although this may not translate to a lower turnout. “I would not be surprised to see a higher number of people taking part in the election; the pandemic has illustrated the importance of the decisions taken by the Senedd and the Welsh Government,” she said.

An appetite for independence?

Cardiff Central has hosted a number of independence marches during the last few years but how important is the issue to its residents?

For Wiliam Rees, “Just like across Wales, the appetite for independence in Cardiff Central is on the rise. More and more voters are looking at the sleaze and corruption in Westminster and beginning to ask themselves, is this as good as it gets? The answer is no of course.”

However, according to Conservative candidate Calum Davies: “There is hardly any support for independence.

“I’ve spoken to more people who want to scrap the Senedd.  But both are consequences of 22 years of Labour failure, often propped up by the Lib Dems.

“It’s the media and other parties that are obsessed with the constitution – we’ll get on with the day job.”

Jenny Rathbone says she has observed a similar attitude. While acknowledging that there is now “increased support for Wales to go it alone… there is no mention of the £20 billion shortfall in resources that would not come to Wales if we cut ourselves loose from Westminster.

“This not what most people are worrying about. They are more interested in how they keep their job, keep a roof over the and staying safe.”

Similarly, for Rodney Berman while “there remains strong ongoing support for devolution”,

“The issue of independence for Wales has come up less on the doorstep than I might have thought given the attention from the media.

“Most voters are more concerned with more immediate, everyday matters regarding our recovery from Covid.”

“On those occasions when the issue of independence has been raised with me, I can honestly say it’s been much more from people who are fearful of the prospect of an independence referendum.”

Other candidates standing in the constituency include Ceri Davies for the Green Party, Julian Bosley for Reform UK, Thomas Franklin for the Freedom Alliance, Brian Johnson for the Socialist (GB) Party, Munawar Mughal for Abolish the Welsh Assembly, Dilan Nazari for Propel and Clem Thomas for Gwlad.

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