Vale of Glamorgan: Can one of the last of the class of ’99 hold out in the Conservatives’ top target seat?
The so-called ‘Class of ‘99’ are a diminishing force in the Senedd.
Not because they no longer occupy important positions in the Government and Senedd, but because there simply aren’t that many left.
Only four of the originals are putting themselves forward for re-election for a sixth time, half as many as in 2016; Elin Jones in Ceredigion, John Griffiths in Newport East, Lynne Neagle in Torfaen, and Jane Hutt.
And it is to Hutt’s Vale of Glamorgan constituency that our attention now turns.
Bucking the trend
Before 2019, the Vale of Glamorgan occupied a special place in Welsh politics in that its MP and MS belonged to different parties. With the other prominent exceptions of Brecon and Radnorshire, the Rhondda and Ynys Mon, the electoral maps of Wales in 2016 and 2017 were near identical.
This changed as a result of the collapse of the north Wales ‘Red Wall’ but what makes the Vale stand out however is how close the races have typically been. In 2016, Hutt scored a majority of exactly 777 votes over the Conservative’s Ross England, who would have been on the ballot for a second time had it not been for scandal.
England was accused by a judge of deliberating sabotaging a rape trial in 2018, a fact that only came to the public’s attention at the time of the last General Election. It led to the resignation from the Cabinet of then-Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, also the constituency’s MP, and the suspension and deselection of England as the party’s Senedd candidate.
Ross England was succeeded by Matt Smith in December of last year and it’s clear that the party regard the constituency as one of their top target seats come May 6th.
Representing a constituency for 22 years at either Westminster or Cardiff Bay is certainly no mean feat.
Where it becomes even more of a challenge is when your party has been the one in power for the duration of that time.
With this in mind, Hutt says she is keen not to become complacent but correctly points out that it hasn’t just been Welsh Labour in government.
“I’ve successfully fought a number of elections in the Vale of Glamorgan, and I’ve got the energy and commitment to continue representing the constituency,” she said.
“[Welsh Labour has] been in power in partnerships, in a coalition with the Lib Dems and also with Plaid Cymru, but also through the years of minority administration we’ve been working very closely with other parties.
“As Finance Minister, I was striking deals with Plaid and the Lib Dems – sometimes even both of them – so that we could get progressive, socially just and economically viable projects into our budgets.
“So, whilst Welsh Labour has very much been in the lead, we’ve been working in partnership with other socially progressive parties”.
Perhaps to be expected, Matt Smith takes the opposite view. When asked why voters should vote Conservative, he points to the hegemony of Labour in Wales over the past 20 years.
“Two decades of Labour-run Welsh Governments has left Wales with the slowest economy and the lowest wages in the UK,” he said.
“Our national mission is to grow Wales’ economy and we will create more jobs, create Business Rate Free Zones, scrap rates for small businesses, freeze Council tax and cut income tax”.
Planes, trains, and automobiles
As with any Senedd election, it is often local issues that decide which box voters will tick. In the Vale of Glamorgan, one of the central tenets of both candidates’ campaigns is transport.
“We have a considerable task to improve our integrated transport system in the Vale of Glamorgan,” says Hutt.
“We’re very fortunate that, because of devolution, the Welsh Government reopened the Vale railway line.
“It’s still only an hourly service though. It’s going to be every half hour in our 2023 plan but I’m pushing for it to be implemented from next year.
“It’s a key priority for me to get the transport system working again.”
She also makes a point of raising her support for the residents of Dinas Powys following the floods last December and is calling for a greater focus on flood defences.
Matt Smith also has an eye on transport, albeit with more of a look towards roads rather than railways.
“We need to kick-start the Vale’s economy to ensure we are match-fit for the recovery by upgrading our transport infrastructure,” he said. “We will improve roads, trains, and bus services.
“We will get the Dinas Powys bypass and M4 Relief Road done so that the Vale can build back better from Covid-19”.
Also on the ballot
There are other candidates running on May 6th, so many in fact that the Vale of Glamorgan has the second most crowded ballot paper in Wales.
Plaid Cymru’s Richard Grigg will be hoping to improve on the party’s 10% vote share from 2016 and looks set to occupy a commendable third place in a part of the country that voted against devolution in 1997, but for more powers in 2011.
Other candidates include Sally Stephenson (Liberal Democrats), Stuart Field (ATWA), Anthony Slaughter (Leader of the Wales Green Party), Michael Hancock (Reform UK), Karl-James Langford (Gwlad), Neill Shah (Freedom Alliance), Janet Brocklehurst (Propel) and Alan Coulthard (Independent).
One party conspicuous by their absence however is UKIP.
UKIP came fourth with almost 10% of the vote in 2016. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the main beneficiaries of their non-appearance would be the Welsh Conservatives. But with an eclectic mix of right-wing parties on the ballot – including Reform UK, Abolish the Welsh Assembly and the ‘Freedom Alliance’ – they face competition mopping up the erstwhile UKIP voters.
As to which way the seat will swing, with the predicted rise in turnout and COVID-19 restrictions, you’d be brave to make a definitive bet now.
But regardless of the eventual outcome, you can’t help but feel that if the Tories fail to make gains here, it will have been a very good night for Mark Drakeford.