Constituency profile #3: Cardiff Central
By Michael Cole and Laura McAllister
Slap bang in the middle of the cultural, commercial and educational heart of our capital city, the Cardiff Central constituency has been reflective of some of the most significant electoral trends in Wales ever since 1918, when a similar, single-MP seat was first carved out in the middle of the city. Won first by the Conservatives (in an era when the Tories had more success in urban hubs than they have enjoyed since), Labour took the seat when the party formed its second administration in 1929, only for its Cardiff Central MP to defect to support the National (Conservative-dominated) coalition for the 1931 election and then manage to hold the seat under that banner in 1935.
The controversial George Thomas (later MP for Cardiff West and Speaker of the House of Commons) entered Parliament as Cardiff Central’s MP in the Labour landslide of 1945, before the seat disappeared in the 1950 boundary changes.
Upon its reconstruction in 1983, election results initially reflected the wider Conservative dominance of the times (see our constituency profile of Bridgend), with Ian Grist winning in both 1983 (by 3,452 votes) and 1987 (by 1,986 votes). In 1992, Labour’s Jon Owen Jones narrowly defeated Grist in an election that witnessed the collapse of the Conservative majority in the House of Commons and a net decline of Conservative representation from eight to six Welsh seats. In the 1997 election, the energy around Tony Blair and the New Labour “project” boosted Labour’s majority to almost 19% (7,923 votes). However, Jon Owen Jones was fortunate to survive a very tight contest in 2001, before eventually losing decisively in 2005 (by 5,593 votes) to the Liberal Democrat candidate, Jenny Willott-this despite his opposition to the Iraq War, an important consideration in a seat with one of the highest proportions of BAME and student constituents. Willott’s win was skilfully and locally crafted in true Lib Dem style, and built upon two Assembly victories for the party there in 1999 and 2003. The three Lib Dem victories seem to have capitalised on seeming weaknesses in the local Labour and Conservative political machines. Conservative campaigning capacity and overall effectiveness has diminished in seats like Cardiff Central, as a result of both shifting demographics and a smallish, ageing membership. Meanwhile, Labour had been hindered by bitter internal divisions within the city between supporters and opponents of Council leader Russell Goodway. Many of these party divisions have continued tight up to the recent council elections but, despite being a clearly divided party in Cardiff, this did not seem to cost the party too harshly at the recent local elections.
The Liberal Democrat grip on Cardiff Central ended in the General Election of 2015 as the party collapsed across the UK following its participation in the coalition government of 2010–15. In Cardiff Central, it seems to make sense that the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote can be directly attributed to the abandonment of its commitment on student tuition fees. Still, this was a relatively modest drop of 14% points, down to 27% from 41%, so by no means as bad as in some Lib Dem-held constituencies, especially student seats. This means, that despite the continuing search for a Lib Dem renaissance in this General Election, the seat can still be regarded as vulnerable with Labour’s Jo Stevens having a majority of under 5000 (13%) over the Lib Dems.
Its current boundaries makes the seat economically diverse, containing affluent areas such as Cyncoed and Lakeside, and deprived postcodes around Adamstown. At its heart, lie the city centre and Cardiff University, as well as the Welsh Government at Cathays Park. Since the significant expansion in the number of students, the University and the student vote has come to be perceived as perhaps the core factor in the seat. Growth in the number of students can certainly be seen as one critical reason why the Conservatives have struggled here since the early 1990s. However, in this election the impact of the student vote is very uncertain because the election is being held after the end of the undergraduate term, thus a lot depends on how many students have registered and will return postal votes in their university city. The overall effects are also confused because it is particularly hard to decipher which way students will vote in 2017. On the one hand, young people have been at the forefront of the new membership of Corbyn’s Labour Party and its leftwards drift. However, declining collective memory of the reversal of the tuition fees promises-some of today’s students were barely in secondary school when that decision was taken-might assist the Liberal Democrats. They might also benefit from the strength of the Remain vote in the constituency, which has been estimated at 68% by a University of East Anglia study.
For Jo Stevens, standing again for Labour, the election has come at the end of a difficult first two years in Parliament. She has certainly made her mark as a new MP. Like her colleagues, first negotiating internal splits following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Leader. Stevens was initially quite supportive (she refused to back the 2016 no confidence motion), before throwing her support behind Owen Smith’s failed leadership bid and then resigning as Shadow Welsh Secretary in January this year over the decision to trigger Article 50. Notwithstanding Stevens’ own strong views on Brexit, this was probably an electoral necessity given constituency attitudes towards leaving the EU.
Despite a smallish Labour majority by this current election’s standards, Jo Stevens is lucky in that she isn’t vulnerable to the predicted Conservative surge, which claims to threaten at least ten of her Labour colleagues in Wales if the early polls are to be believed. The Conservatives obtained under 15% of the vote here in 2015 and are unlikely to gain much traction in so Brexit a focused campaign. Neither does it have a significant UKIP vote to hoover up, with that party winning just 6.5% two years ago. The seat also provides little to encourage Plaid Cymru, a demographic comprised of few Welsh-speakers and a disproportionately high number of English-born residents has meant that the 5% obtained in 2015 has been Plaid Cymru’s best result to date. The Plaid candidate, Mark Hooper, is active and visible at least but it is hard to be find any evidence that Plaid can make much further headway in Cardiff Central. In the recent local elections, Plaid again failed to make a real impression in the six electoral divisions that comprise the constituency.
Despite the party’s consistently poor campaign polling, it would be foolish to discount the Liberal Democrat challenge in Cardiff Central. Its candidate, former Assembly Member Eluned Parrott, is quoted as the favourite by Betfair. We are certainly not convinced by that but the Lib Dems know how to campaign and get its vote out locally, Plus, the Lib Dems did beat Labour in the recent council elections (clearly outpolling Labour in three of six wards and locked in a near tie in Adamstown). Still, there were much weaker performances elsewhere in the constituency.
Ultimately, the contest might depend on whether Labour can sustain its most recent boost in support levels (especially in Wales) over the course of the next fortnight. Jo Stevens is undoubtedly a talented politician and, in any other period of Labour opposition, would have been recognised and talked up far more by the UK media. On the down side, in her short, two-year term as MP, it is unlikely that she been able to acquire a personal vote of any significance. Typically, first term MPs benefit most from personal votes, but measurements across the past 40 years show that they need at least four years to develop such a base support.
So the seat will be a fascinating one on election night, not least because it is one of the few Labour marginals in Wales where the sitting MP- Betfair excepted -should be regarded as the favourite. Overall, Cardiff Central represents a distinctive Welsh electoral contest as the only real Labour/Liberal Democrat marginal. This underlines the point that we have made elsewhere about our expectations of a series of very localised and distinctive contests across Wales that will determine how successful an election this is for the different parties-something the polls and projections of uniform national swing to seats are unable to unpick. With Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives making up the numbers here, this is a two-woman contest and either Jo Stevens or Eluned Parrot will be cracking open the fizz in the small hours of 9th June.