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14 April 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 11:27am

“It’s like Russian roulette”: On the road with the First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones

The only Labour politician in power (above a local level) in the UK discusses his plan to save steelmaking, leadership advice for Jeremy Corbyn, and Labour’s Welsh Assembly election campaign.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Carwyn Jones was elected First Minister of Wales in December 2009. He is now the most senior Labour politician in power in the UK and is battling through the worst industrial crisis since the decline of coal in the mid-1980s. He is also less than a month from Welsh Assembly elections on 5 May. Every pronouncement on British steel is made with that in mind.

“It’s not a question of trying to save something that’s doomed to fail,” he says during lunch with his campaign team at a greasy-spoon café opposite the railway station in Llanelli, a formerly industrial town on the south coast of west Wales. “It’s made money before; it can make money again.”

Chimneys from the Trostre tinplate mill are visible on the campaign trail, which winds up steep hills of neat terraced houses and pebble-dashed bungalows.

The beleaguered steel plant at Port Talbot lies about 20 miles east of here. One of the largest steelworks in Europe, Port Talbot employs 4,104 people, but its future is uncertain. Last month its owner, Tata Steel, announced it would be pulling out of UK operations. The plant, which had been losing up to £1m a day before the end of 2015, has yet to find a buyer. Tata’s Scunthorpe plant has been sold to Greybull Capital, and there has been some interest in Port Talbot from the Indian entrepreneur Sanjeev Gupta, the chair of the Liberty House steel company.

All photos: Natasha Hirst

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Jones is now meeting regularly with David Cameron and other cabinet members to discuss the crisis, and stresses the need for the UK government to consider temporary ownership to buy time before a private takeover.

“They’re not saying no to it,” he tells me. And though he’d prefer to find a buyer, Jones reveals that he would push Cameron for full, permanent nationalisation if necessary. “No question,” he shrugs: “better for the state to run Tata’s assets than closure.”

Jones has also met Gupta for a conversation about Port Talbot. “They are very interested in all the operation,” he discloses. “The worry that I had was that they would be cherrypicking the most profitable end of the operation. But with the right package, they’ve expressed an interest.”

This is a change from reports that Gupta is mainly considering the plant’s “downstream” (steel processing, rather than heavy steelmaking) activities.

But nothing is decided and Jones is concerned. He has a personal as well as a political investment in the survival of steel. Welsh industry has played a pivotal role in his life. “About four generations back, there have always been miners in the family,” he says.

Jones, who is 49, grew up in Bridgend, a market town that sprang up close to Wales’s first coal-mining operations, and a 15-minute train ride away from Port Talbot. He spoke Welsh at home with his parents, who both worked as teachers, and went to a comprehensive school. He represents the Bridgend constituency in the Welsh Assembly and lives locally with his wife, Lisa, and two children, Seren and Ruairi.

When Jones goes knocking on doors in Llanelli, a knife-edge marginal between Labour and Plaid Cymru – “It’s like Russian roulette,” he quips – residents invite him into their houses or gardens for a chat, often in Welsh, whether they’re supporters or not.

“I’m not very impressed with all of you [in the Assembly],” an elderly lady in pink slippers complains. “I might as well tell you the truth,” she chides. “You’re all always dozing off.”

“I don’t get that chance, believe me!” Jones hits back, somehow leaving her in the process of slapping a Labour sticker on her front window.

Jones describes constituents’ surprise at seeing him shopping or watching rugby. “People don’t want politicians who are divorced from reality,” he says. “You have to have a connection with life outside politics.”

He evokes his roots when discussing Ukip’s surge in Wales, a party that has never held a seat in the Welsh Assembly but has been polling ahead of Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems (the most recent poll shows Plaid in second place to Labour, but with Ukip still gaining ground).

“What’s important is that we look to remove the reasons for people to vote Ukip,” he tells me. Bear in mind that you’ve got Ukip leader Nigel Farage, ex-public school boy, working in the city. I was in a comprehensive, my background’s in mining communities. The idea that Ukip are more representative of working people is farcical.”

Pollsters say that Ukip could win nine of the 20 list seats, which are allocated to parties based on regional vote share. In a Caerphilly council by-election last week, the party’s vote went up by 20 points, coming in second to Labour.

Although Ukip is splitting the opposition in certain constituencies, its popularity is mainly detrimental to Labour in the Welsh Assembly, which currently has a majority of zero, with 30 seats out of 60.

“People are just looking for a vehicle to express annoyance. And Ukip are the current vehicle for that,” Jones says. “It’s happened before with the Lib Dems, it’s happened before with Plaid. There’s a limit to how many people will vote for them.”

So, what advice would he give Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour leader aiming to represent his party in government, as Jones does? “There are two things I have found: first of all, appealing to the party is different from appealing to the public when you’re running for election,” he says. “We can be as popular as we want within the party but we have to reach out further than that.

“Secondly, we live in an age when party leaders are more focused on than ever before; it’s an age of celebrity. You have to bear in mind that what we say and do can be scrutinised to the nth degree, and you have to present yourself as somebody who looks like a first minister or a prime minister.”

Jones – the first head of government in the UK to have been educated at a comprehensive school – also cites his background as a factor in his political success. “You have to come over with an air of some kind of normality to your life,” he says, “prove that you’re not some kind of anorak.”

Jones concedes that this was one of Labour’s problems in the general election last year, when the Conservatives achieved their best result in Wales in three decades. “People were literally at the polling station and didn’t know [who to vote for], but thought, ‘Cameron looks more the part’.”

Carwyn Jones with Llanelli Labour candidate Lee Waters.

Will Corbyn have the same problem? “He needs some time,” is Jones’s diplomatic response. “He’s still fairly new in the job. But yeah, we all know, as leaders of political parties, you have to make yourself look the part.”

Yet he insists that Labour’s performance in the assembly election is his responsibility, “not Jeremy’s”, and warns the Westminster party to “avoid knee-jerk reactions to election results” in May. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘there should be a coup in parliament [against Corbyn]’. Well, then what?”

As we weave through the streets in the car back to the station, Jones turns his mind to a campaign speech he will make at a Bridgend fundraiser later that evening. “Every year in power gets more difficult,” he says. “Because your record is ever bigger, and because your opponents say it’s time for change . . . We don’t know what the result will show us. It is not a night for faint hearts.” 

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war