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.