In 2013 Rhyl was hit by a huge tidal surge. Hundreds of properties were gutted, and some of the poorest communities in Wales were displaced by the Irish sea. It was the EU that stepped in to help construct the flood defences that now bulwark the seafront.
“Denbighshire has had hundreds of millions of pounds from the EU. £9bn has come in for the eight counties in Wales,” says Chris Ruane, the Labour MP for the Vale of Clwyd. “Do you think Boris Johnson, sat in his fiefdom in the Treasury, will give money to Wales?”
It is a familiar story. The Vale of Clwyd voted by 56.5 per cent to leave the EU. Rhyl is the largest settlement in the constituency – a Victorian resort built for holidaymakers from nearby Liverpool. Like all of Britain’s seaside towns, competition from overseas has taken its toll. But the large investment in the area shows that a fight is being fought – by both the bean counters in Cardiff and the bureaucrats in Brussels. The EU has made significant contributions to the town’s regeneration, whether it be by funding the theatre, the careers advisory, the cycle track, or the very flood defences that keep the place alive. So what will happen after Brexit?
“I can’t guarantee that flood defences will have their funding matched because I’m not a minister,” says Dr James Davies, the Conservative candidate. “But I would argue very strongly that they should.”
Davies was speaking to the New Statesman in the Geronimo arcade, with the sounds of slot machines ringing in his ears. He had just come from a local press tour with Priti Patel. The Home Secretary’s visit to this part of the world barely got a mention in the national media, but was nevertheless highly indicative of Conservative hopes for taking the seat, and an issue they hope to leverage to their benefit. North Wales has been blighted in recent times by the running of drugs along county lines from Liverpool. The Conservatives are serious about making gains, and so sending a minister to promise a partial reversal of police cuts makes perfect sense.
Chris Ruane is all too aware that he has got a fight on his hands in the Vale of Clwyd. The former teacher lost his seat to Davies in 2015, only to win it back again two years later by 2,739 votes.
To keep the seat red, Ruane will have to rely on the support of people like Lee Williams – a postal worker and union member from Rhyl. But Williams appears disillusioned.
“I don’t think I’m voting this time,” says Lee, tugging his grizzled beard. “The votes weren’t listened to before. Everyone has lost interest at work.”
Lee, who is in his thirties, is proud of his hometown’s direction of travel. But when asked about where the money has come from to rejuvenate the area, he is non-plussed.
“I don’t think the EU has done anything for Rhyl,” he says to the visible chagrin of Ruane. This prompts the 61-year-old to launch into a wholehearted defence of Brussels. But when Lee closes his front door, he still seems unconvinced.
“I feel sad because it will be ordinary people who will pick up the tab,” says Ruane, who grew up on a local council estate. “But you’ve got to be principled. Even if I lose my seat I will know I’ve done the right thing.”
There is an argument that Labour’s boots on the ground could still swing things around. Ruane has assembled a formidable team of door-knockers. Given the inclemency of the North Wales winter, his crew is encouraging Labour voters to apply for postal votes. But, at this stage, all the campaigning in the world might not be enough.
“My family has voted Labour for 100 years – they were dustmen, coalmen,” says Lorraine Lloyd, an erstwhile Londoner who has retired from running caravan parks on the North Wales coast. “But there’s no way I can vote for Jeremy Corbyn.”
Clutching her dog, Lorraine is saddened by what she will do.
“Unless someone knocks on my door from Labour then…actually no, no….even then I just don’t think I can. I will vote Conservative.”
Meanwhile, the Tories’ core vote is bubbling away nicely. If Rhyl is mostly red, then Prestatyn is mostly blue. It is a sloping town of semi-detached houses about four miles down the coast. Moss grows on the pavements and Audis sit on the driveways. Opening the doors of their spacious homes, Conservative members praise Johnson’s “get-up-and-go” and Leave voters liken the EU referendum to cricket – “whoever wins wins“. The Tories are rallying around their captain.
If Labour is to hold the Vale of Clwyd, then all the bohemian communities inland, all the indigent families in West Rhyl, all the farmers about to lose their EU subsidies – they will all have to come together and mobilise around Chris Ruane. Right now, that does not look like happening.