Rob James: The combative politician hoping to win Carmarthenshire back for Labour
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
Debates at Carmarthenshire Council can get feisty, and Rob James is usually involved. In many respects that is the job of the opposition leader – to question, to prod, to challenge.
Mr James seems to have a knack of winding up certain opponents, and I’m keen to find out more about his strategy and his background. I learn that he wanted to join the Army and studied war and society at Swansea University, and wonder if these could be clues to his approach.
It was Valentine’s Day when we met and a busker was making a good fist of Leonard Cohen hit Hallelujah outside Llanelli’s St Elli Shopping Centre, which seemed to augur well for a convivial chat.
The Carmarthenshire Labour leader was born in Swansea 34 years ago and moved around with his two younger siblings as his parents looked for work.
He attended Dwr-y-Felin Comprehensive School in Neath, then college and university – the point when a career in the Army appealed. “My parents convinced me not to do it,” he said.
Mr James said that during university, which included a master’s degree in politics, he worked in residential and domiciliary care, starting off as a care assistant and finishing as a care manager. And it was that experience which provided a route into local politics.
He said: “I went to see Glenda Thomas, who was deputy minister for social services and Neath AM – I was mouthing off a bit about how much profits we were expected to make for these care companies.
“I said something needs to be done about it. She said, ‘Join the Labour Party, help make it happen.’ So I did.”
He stood as a candidate in the council elections in Neath Port Talbot in 2012 and won the most votes in Bryncoch South, becoming one of two councillors – the other was a Plaid Cymru candidate – to represent the ward.
“It was regarded as a safe Plaid seat,” he said. “I don’t think people thought I was going to win. But I was from the area, it’s where I went to school, and I had ‘worked’ the area for about a year.”
Despite being in his early 20s, Mr James said he had an idea about what he wanted to achieve as a councillor, but said being a backbencher in a Labour-run council sometimes meant “accepting things you don’t want to accept”.
“I was siding with the unions on a couple of issues,” he said. He served his five-year term, along the way meeting his partner Sophie Leyshon, with whom he has two children – Oscar and Harper.
During his five years in office he and Miss Leyshon moved to Llanelli, and he began working part-time for Swansea West MP Geraint Davies. In 2017 he stood successfully for election as a Carmarthenshire councillor in Llanelli’s Lliedi ward. The following year he became Labour group leader.
Then, in 2019, nine county and town councillors quit Labour in quick succession amid claims of bullying and harassment. Mr James rejected these claims. He said: “It’s all in the past now.”
Asked if he felt he did wind people up, Mr James said his approach was “combative” inside the council chamber.
“We have fundamental policy stances, and I think it’s important to make them clear,” he said. “I’m pushing hard to show our differences to the electorate.
“One of the arguments people have about not voting is that ‘they (politicians) are all the same’. I’m keen to show we’re not all the same.”
Mr James said other parties came back with their strong positions in debates. “That’s exactly how it should be,” he said.
Being opposition leader is essentially a reactive role as the ruling administration has the mandate to implement its policies.
“There are times when we put our policy agenda out there,” said Mr James. “We tried before Christmas to push for an extra day’s leave for the council workforce as a genuine thank you for the last three years.”
Behind the scenes, Mr James said he met council officers regularly to discuss and put forward ideas.
We were talking before the war in Ukraine, before the party manifestos were published, and before the cost of living, while already serious, became the huge issue that it is now.
Asked about priorities in Lliedi – the ward where he is once more a prospective councillor – Mr James cited the delivery of a new Ysgol Dewi Sant, the proliferation of Japanese knotweed, and what he felt was lack of visible progress on restoration work at Parc Howard.
Mr James campaigned against the plan for a new Ysgol Dewi Sant at Llanerch fields, and he insisted “Nimbyism” wasn’t involved in this stance.
Ysgol Dewi Sant has been the source of frank exchanges between Labour and Plaid in debates, with the latter accusing Labour of scuppering a plan which would have resulted in a new school by now.
Mr James said Natural Resources Wales had concerns about the Llanerch site. “We could not see how they (the administration) could build on it,” he said.
Mr James said Labour would look to complete a new Ysgol Dewi Sant within two years if it was voted into power on May 5.
Asked what a vote for Carmarthenshire Labour meant, Mr James said he wanted a council which supported work going on in communities rather than one “imposing its will on them”.
“We want to focus on renewal and renovation rather than building for the sake of building – a strong future with availability and quality of opportunity.”
The emphasis, he said, was focusing on a few policy areas and making a difference.
Why would he make a good council leader, I asked?
“I have managed people and been in leadership roles,” he said.
“It’s not my aspiration to be leader of the council – some people just see the title, the position, the salary – but I feel there is a duty to change things. And I think I’m in a position to change things.”
It was an interesting answer, and Mr James was keen to convey that he was not motivated by ambition, rather than not aiming in any way to be council leader.
He stood as prospective MS for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in the 2021 Senedd elections, coming second behind Plaid’s national leader Adam Price.
“I didn’t expect to win,” said Mr James. “But I was fighting on council issues, and wanted to show Labour was an option for the council elections (this year).”
Outside of council work and his part-time role for MP Mr Davies, which Mr James said could take up all hours of the day and evening, he is a football fan who likes spending time outdoors and playing games with his children.
He said national politics did impact on council elections and would continue to do so. “There have been plenty of studies on this,” he said.
Mr James went on to give an insightful view on the differences between the UK Labour Party and Welsh Labour. But he didn’t think it would preoccupy voters on May 5.
“I do believe that, more often than not, people vote for the person not the party,” he said.
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