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A battle between two fears: who'll win in the Vale of Glamorgan?

Stephen Bush visits the Vale of Glamorgan, which has picked the winner at every election since its creation.

The Vale of Glamorgan doesn’t look like a marginal constituency. Even Barry Island, of Gavin and Stacey fame, is dominated by the big brass door knockers and large terrace houses that, in England, would indicate steady Toryism.

In England, these would be homes bought by bankers or middle managers. But in the Vale, doors open to reveal teachers and public-sector administrators who have been hit hard by stagnant pay and anxiety over job losses. The political figure I hear most about is Michael Gove. “The government has declared war on teachers,” says Mary, who voted for Alun Cairns, the Conservative candidate, when he won in 2010. “We need to get politics out of the classroom.”

It’s small wonder that Cairns’s position doesn’t look as secure as his 4,300 majority would suggest. One Labour strategist talks about being able to “smell blood” in the canvass returns. The central party, meanwhile, is pouring resources into the seat.

But unlike in England, where the rise of Ukip hurts the Conservatives more than Labour, here it appears to be the other way round. In Wales, as one Tory insider says, “Ukip takes our activists but Labour’s voters.” Nigel Farage’s party will come a distant third but it could prevent Labour’s Chris Elmore from overhauling Cairns. One woman on the constituency’s borders says she has “been Labour all my life – and what have I got for it? Nothing. It’ll be Ukip this time.”

What the Conservatives lack in manpower they make up for in money, and the Tory message screams down from every other billboard. “The cost of Labour”, says one, an outstretched hand reaching down to take £3,000 from the unsuspecting citizens of Barry. On the road to Cardiff Airport, one of the constituency’s biggest employers, commuters get a daily dose of Conservativism with their morning drive.

That those same slogans start to come up on the doorstep is therefore little surprise. Alan, who owns a small business, tells me he blames Labour for the economic difficulties of the past five years. “Labour would take us back [to that situation].”

Karen, another teacher, says that she and her husband have “cut down on luxuries... we don’t eat out as much as we used to”. Like most homeowners on Barry Island, Karen has no backstop of capital behind her; when I ask her what worries her most, her reply is immediate: “The mortgage. What happens if one of us gets sick or [given] redundancy?” But when I ask her how she’s voting, she tells me: “I’m voting Conservative. We can’t go back to where we were five years ago.”

Voters here are caught between two fears – a fear of worse to come under the Conservatives, and a fear that the past five years have “all been for nothing”, as Alan puts it. In 2011, with the cuts beginning to bite, his business nearly went bust and he contemplated remortgaging the house to keep himself afloat. “But we’re still here, in one piece,” he smiles. “The economy’s beginning to pick up. I think we should have elections every ten years, let the government get more of a run at it.”

Labour could still win the election on the day. Elmore, who has lived on the island for a decade, is a well-liked local councillor with a strong on-the-ground campaign. Yet in some ways the Vale isn’t quite so different from the leafy Tory strongholds of southern England that it resembles. “I’ve worked hard,” Alan says. “I haven’t been given anything, I’ve never claimed anything. What are Labour doing for me?”

Under Ed Miliband, Labour no longer has a compelling response, no longer exudes what Rafael Behr, the Guardian columnist and former NS political editor, described as “the subtle cadence of reassurance that was once its passport to success”. It may be that Miliband and his party pay a heavy price for that in the Vale.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.