The 650 | 4th May 2017

View from Bridgend: why a Welsh town is considering “anyone but Labour”

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Walk around Bridgend town centre and one could be forgiven for not knowing local elections are just a few hours away. That alone is not news. Voter apathy has been a feature of UK politics for a while, and in this part of the country it’s no different. “Things never change no matter who’s in charge,” says one local.

Except these are not your normal times. In recent decades Labour has ruled supreme in this sleepy town in South Wales. But in 2015, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon won the parliamentary constituency with a majority of less than 2,000. Her party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is popular with members but unpopular with voters at large. As Bob Dylan would say: “The Times They Are A Changin’” , and the Tories know it.

That means little to Hailey Townsend. The 33-year-old Labour councillor is running for re-election in the Brackla ward. The Tories are interested in this ward too – on 25 April the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May made a surprise appearance in the hopes of galvanising a disenchanted electorate.

“I don’t really care about what the polls are saying,” she says. “The polls told us we would be remaining in Europe and the UK voted to leave, the polls told us Ed Miliband would be our next Prime Minister and he is not.”

Word on the street, though, is that Labour is no longer trusted to lead the way, even in a place still reeling by years of austerity measures spearheaded by the Conservatives.

“Anything but Labour,” a passerby tells me when I approach him on the high street. “Corbyn can’t be trusted.”

This is not just unfiltered anger fuelled by sensationalist newspaper headlines. People here have experienced the worst side of globalisation and the ineffectiveness of their elected leaders in protecting them.

Between 2005 and 2006, hundreds of people lost their jobs after Sony shut down its local plant. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, which decimated the once vibrant furniture industry. Fast forward to today and Bridgend’s economy is on its knees. The rows of boarded up shops on the high street are a painful reminder of a bygone era.

“If you want to see what Bridgend is all about go and spend a day outside the bus station,” I am advised by a local. “It’s all about drugs and alcohol.”

This used to be coal country. “The best coal in the world used to come from these surrounding valleys,” my taxi driver, an ex-coal miner, told me. “I haven’t been able to find a better job since.” And yet, when asked about how he intended to vote at today’s local elections, he was sure of only one thing. “I’m not voting Labour.”

During my two-day stay in the city it is hard to find people willing to talk politics, until I meet Peter Foley and his friend, Howard Lewis, at the local Wetherspoon pub. At 71, Foley, a retired school governor, is running as an independent for a seat at the local council. Lewis, 80, is still an active member of the Labour party. Both men have dedicated their lives to grassroots politics, but today they see a Labour party happy to compromise its identity and core beliefs for the sake of power.

“I find it hard to detect left-wing socialism in the Labour party in Wales,” Foley tells me when we sat in his living room, where I am given coffee served in a Che Guevara mug.

The retired teacher is unapologetically left-wing and if one is in any doubt of where he stands politically, all it takes is a look around his home: the carpet, the walls, the upstairs bedroom. Everything comes in red.

Contrary to popular belief, the pair don’t think Jeremy Corbyn, who is “saying things that should have been said a long time ago,” is to blame for Labour’s current turmoil.

“We are now in a time of career politicians, where they can see the advantages of being in Westminster,” Lewis says. “Whereas years ago there were far more people that were committed to bring about change, dramatic socialist changes, and I think Jeremy Corbyn reflects that.”

And then there is the word on everyone’s lips: Brexit. Wales voted to leave but Labour, which in Bridgend alone has been in power for the last 30 years, wanted to remain. In the eyes of many here, the campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum which Townsend describes “as the most divisive campaign she has ever been involved in”, was all about one thing.

“That campaign wasn’t about austerity, it was all about immigration and controlled immigration and that’s what we were getting on the doorstep,” he says. “David Cameron played a clever game in saying he would bring a referendum forward because a lot of people out there are concerned about immigration.”

But as bleak as the immediate future might look for Welsh Labour, Foley believes the party can  still be a force to be reckoned with if it manages to steer the ship and go back to its roots.

“The struggle needs to be pretty vigorous,” he tells me. “It has got to be mounted through trade unions, and if the Labour Party part doesn’t latch on to that genuine popular feeling, it will be marginalised because it is too centrist. It needs to commit itself to the people who I represent, who are desperately, desperately poor.”