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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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.