Constituency profile: #1 Bridgend/Penybont ar Ogwr

by Jeff Jones and Laura McAllister

Five weeks from the General Election, I’ll be adding a few interesting constituency profiles here on the blog. Now, aside from being my home patch and clearly the best place to live in Wales, it seems that the Bridgend seat has been elevated to “interesting” status in this election. That’s because of three things: first, its relatively small majority of 1,927 in the General Election of 2015 (a figure significant not just for its marginality, but also to Cardiff City fans in the constituency…); second, a set of potentially very interesting local council results; and third, the wider context of a stubborn and significant Conservative lead over Labour in the opinion polls.

This blog is jointly written with Jeff Jones, former leader of Bridgend CBC, Labour party councillor in Maesteg for over twenty five years and self-confessed party “maverick”. In Jeff’s words: “I passionately believe that one of the problems with the Labour Party in Wales is its failure to recognise that Welsh society has changed and is changing further. The unity of the graveyard is not the right response for a party that wants to survive in the 21st century.”

Over 30 years ago, in the 1983 General Election, to the surprise of many, the Tories won the newly-created seat of Bridgend. The new constituency had been carved out of parts of the old Aberafan and Ogmore seats, both of which had been solidly safe Labour seats since the 1918 election. But since 1987, Bridgend has consistently returned Labour MPs to Westminster and has been represented by Carwyn Jones, now First Minister, since the first Assembly elections in 1999. The recent YouGov/ITV/WGC poll had suggested that the Conservatives are once again in with a serious chance of winning Bridgend in the forthcoming General Election. That Teresa May visited Bridgend (albeit to address a closed audience of party activists seemingly shipped in from elsewhere) underlines Bridgend’s new target seat status.

The composition and demography of the constituency gives us some powerful clues as to why this is the case. Bridgend is, in many ways, not a typical south Wales seat. The seat takes its name from the old market town, but the constituency is much bigger than Bridgend town and encompasses an area that has been transformed over the past 50 years. In particular, the land close to the M4 motorway became a favoured location for new industry in the old Mid Glamorgan manufacturing boom, including giant sites for Sony and Ford. With its huge private housing estates, there has been a large population movement and many residents work in Cardiff and Swansea-20-odd miles east and west. In many ways, Bridgend looks more like a English North West or Midlands marginal than a traditional Welsh Labour seat.

And, it’s worth remembering that, even when Bridgend was part of the old Ogmore constituency which was dominated by Labour’s power base in the three valleys, Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw north of the M4, it had generated some 6,000 votes for the Conservatives.

It seems to us that less than five weeks from the election, there are striking similarities between 1983 and 2017. In 1983, Labour was led by an unpopular leader in Michael Foot. Its manifesto policies were notoriously labelled the “longest suicide note in political history”. Labour was also significantly weakened by the decision of some of its senior MPs to break away to form the SDP.

In Bridgend, there were also local factors which helped the Tories. The Conservative candidate, Peter Hubbard Miles, was a well-known local businessman and Porthcawl councillor. He gained local respect when he took court action to force the Tories to consider him as a potential candidate.

Labour had some grubby rows over candidate selection, whilst the SDP fielded a strong, local candidate, Russell Smart who himself was a former Labour Party member. Hubbard Miles was elected MP with a majority of 1,337 over Labour. Crucially for Labour, Smart polled over 9,000 votes and probably cost Labour the seat.

Back to the future and, in 2017, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn would appear to be even more unpopular than Michael Foot. If the polls are to be trusted, Labour’s policies on most issues, and with all age groups except the under 34s, are less popular than those of the Tories. In 1997, Labour polled 25,111 votes. In 2015, although Labour held the seat, sitting MP Madeleine Moon polled just 14,624, a majority of just 1,927. Given any Labour seat with a majority of under 10,000 might being presented as a potential Tory gain, this explains why attention is now on Bridgend, and from beyond Wales.

Like everywhere, Moon has a number of local issues to contend with. We gained an indication of how Bridgend voters are thinking in yesterday’s council elections where the Conservatives won a number of seats within the Bridgend constituency. So, what does this tell us about Labour’s prospects for the General Election? Only a fool would read across from local elections, but we predict that the local dimension might also be a powerful feature of many marginals in the next poll, thus generating some interesting results on June 9th. Overall, this means that Labour is right to be worried about Bridgend. In Brackla, which in many ways is the Bridgend constituency in microcosm, the Tories gained three seats from Labour in a four-member ward. The Tories also gained Litchard and seats in Bridgend town itself. We can assume that voters in these parts of Bridgend decided to back the Tories instead of independents, Plaid or Liberal Democrats. Labour can, however, take some comfort from the fact that it did retain councillors in its heartland areas. The locals suggest that, unless Labour mobilises its support more effectively, then the Tories could do what they did in the late 1970s and build on local election successes to snatch the seat at a General Election.

Jeff Jones says: “Those who know Madeleine Moon also know that she is a tough fighter who has confounded the odds in the past. No one expected her to win the Labour nomination when Win Griffiths retired. She is the sitting MP which is worth something and she hasn’t blotted her copy book with local voters. She also, in many ways, epitomises the new Bridgend; an outsider who moved here, and settled with her family. When I was Council Leader, we often clashed because she always pushed for more resources for Porthcawl, the part of the constituency where her family had made its home. Moon, who promised to serve for just two elections, probably hasn’t managed to accumulate much of a personal vote-not entirely her fault given Bridgend’s transient demographic these days. However, unlike in 1983, this time the Tories didn’t have in place a ready-made strong, local candidate with a good personal story to take advantage of Labour’s bigger problems. With the selection of an unknown candidate from outside the area, Karen Robson, Labour will seek to capitalise on the fact that Moon is the “local” and that the local Conservative party has had to select an “outsider”. How much this matters to electors is unknown in truth.

Moon is no Corbyn supporter. As a member of the Defence Select Committee, she has been very pro Trident and wants more money for the Armed Forces. These are perceived as real strengths that will help here with traditional Labour voters.”

Having said all of that, it goes without saying that “it’s not over until the fat lady sings”. Clearly, a lot will depend on turnout and how successful the parties are in getting out their support on June 8th. In the two 1980s elections, turnout in Bridgend was above 77%; by 2015, it had fallen to 65%. What polls can’t reflect is distinctive local cultures and party perceptions. There remains a significant antipathy towards the Tories amongst many voters in at least some parts of a seat like Bridgend. The over 45s at least, might live in a relatively expensive house on a private estate but will likely have close family connections with mining in the nearby Valleys. Mrs Moon has to hope there is residual loyalty to Labour, then she needs to get these voters out and might even need a record 80% overall turnout to be safe. Remember, Moon might have polled just 14,624 in 2015, but Labour has previously polled over 25,000 votes in Bridgend. This suggests that, if Moon can reawaken what used to be a solid Labour bloc and then mobilise this in key areas like Cefn Glas, Cefn Cribwr, Pyle and Kenfig Hill, she has a chance. But in order to win the ground war, Labour will need significant numbers of foot soldiers in Bridgend and the recent council election campaign shows that they are just not there. Labour probably needs to flood the constituency with workers, even if this means neglecting nearby formerly considered “marginal’ seats such as the Vale of Glamorgan.

Active Labour membership might be low, as in many Welsh constituencies, but successive election campaigns have enabled it to build up a pretty comprehensive record of where its supporters are. Although these voters are the key to Labour’s defence on June 8th, Moon also has to worry about where the 5,911 UKIP votes from the 2015 General Election might go. She can only hope that the majority of them do not transfer to the Tories as the only Welsh poll so far suggests they will.

So, this usually overlooked Welsh constituency can expect a few more visits from politicians and the UK media over the next few weeks. Bridgend is a symbolic seat, not least because its AM is the First Minister. Labour has now lost overall control of the Council. Losing the Bridgend seat on top would be a major psychological blow for Welsh Labour.

But who knows? Moon might just have enough to shine in the predicted Labour gloom on June 8th. The local election results in so far show that Labour can buck UK trends, although that is far easier at local level than in a General Election evidently. However, if there really is a seismic shift/earthquake/sea change (delete as you choose) underway in Welsh politics, nothing will be enough to save Madeleine Moon in Bridgend.