Labour has a lot to lose in Wales. Its 580 council seats are threatened by old rivals Plaid Cymru and the Tories. But LYNNE WALSH find somes local upstarts looking set to shake things up with a new party
THERE’S a very useful word used in the south Wales Valleys: “didorath,” which could be translated as “apathetic,” or “shiftless.”
This lovely word, said like a sigh, can also mean “complacent.” It’s used by people who have given up, who can’t be bothered, or have tired of intransigency.
A sentiment I hear most often in Aberdare, my home town, runs along these lines: “Oh, it’s terrible [the economy, public transport, litter, you name it], but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
This month, however, will see 10 fresh candidates who feel there is something to be done, and have formed a new political party to inject some “hwyl” (passion) into political life. Their claim is that Labour’s firm hold on councils no longer serves voters.
There’s a malaise in the Valleys, and has been for many years. There were prosperous decades, when coal was king, of course, when miners took their families to the swanky new Italian cafes, for cappuccino or glorious ice creams.
The popularity of the former led to the perfectly daft question: “Ydych chi’n hoffi froffi coffi?” Do you like frothy coffee? Our shining town offered pastries, superlative fish and chips, and delicate sorbets, from Mascherpa’s, Rabaiotti’s, Brugnoli’s, Servini’s, Ferrari’s, etc.
These thriving businesses were run by immigrants from another time, and even greater poverty; most of our Italian neighbours came from Bardi, the town their grandparents left from the 1890s on. Our Irish neighbours, and ancestors, came from the 1840s on, fleeing a greater hunger.
The Miners’ Strike seemed a turning point, at least for my generation. There were moments of elation, shortlived, when the Welsh Development Agency built shiny new “industrial units,” welcoming in Korean and Japanese firms, with promises of hundreds of jobs.
The shine went off this optimism, for a lot of locals, as the companies moved out again. There was rejoicing on a packed-chapel scale when Tower Colliery, in Hirwaun, staged a workers’ buy-out, and reopened in 1995.
As part of its campaign, the red flag had been raised on Hirwaun Common in October 1993, in a show of solidarity during an event to mark the Merthyr Rising of 1831. In 1994, Cynon Valley’s MP Ann Clwyd had staged a sit-in at the pit to protest against closure.
The colliery closed again in 2008, followed by talk of some opencast mining and reclamation of the site, perhaps for housing, light industry or tourism.
This latter notion elicits snorts of derision from many. The Rhondda has its “heritage park,” Merthyr has a revamped town centre and is soon to host a Merthyr Rising festival and nearby Pontypridd had a stylish refurbished lido. Aberdare and its nearing villages seem forgotten, according to the Cynon Valley Party (CVP), that is.
Rubber-stamped by the Electoral Commission in September last year, the party has held around 25 public meetings, at which — co-founder Andrew Chainey tells me — some 25 or so people turned up.
So, if people seem to be either apathetic (didorath), or so alienated by national politics that they vote Ukip as a “protest,” why on earth would they have an appetite for a new party?
Chainey says people have responded to the CVP assurances, that they are not about Brexit, immigration, nor Westminster. They focus on community issues.
I challenge, as any local newspaper reporter would: “Oh come on, isn’t that just dogs’ mess on the streets and rubbish collections?”
“Yes; those things matter to people. Making sure that streetlights are working matters.
“Planning issues are huge issues; there are 300 houses planned for Cwmdare,” a nearby village, with few amenities of its own. “What about schools; what about local doctors?”
Chainey and his colleagues maintain that the Cynon Valley is relatively neglected by the council; its name, Rhondda Cynon Taff, derived from the merger of three local authorities, Rhondda, Cynon Valley and Taff-Ely in 1996.
The CVP’s insistence that the Britain-wide parties focus on “topics which have no relevance to everyday local authority decisions” strikes a jarring note, personally, until I acknowledge that I don’t live in the area, and haven’t for more than 30 years. I constantly remind myself that I am, to all intents and purposes, a Londoner. Holding some misty-eyed view of sweet Aberdare, once dubbed “the queen of the valleys” is facile.
So, if I lived in the town, with its 30,000 residents, its closed down pubs and shops, its execrable bypass, and few really “local” jobs, how would I vote?
I’m a Labour Party member; I boast that Aberdare’s first MP, Charles Butt Stanton, thought that Keir Hardie was not left-wing enough. I was brought up with well-read miners who devoured tomes from the Left Book Club; I was weaned on stories of our Communist doctors, of international brigaders who fought fascists in Spain. I celebrated my wedding in May 1997, in a Tory-free country, at a venue overlooking the Tower Colliery.
Socialism is the lifeblood; would I have anything to do with those who would chip away at Labour — especially now?
The Labour-controlled council, responsible for 230,000 residents, has 75 members, 60 of whom are Labour. Plaid Cymru has nine councillors, there is one each for the Lib Dems and the Tories. The remaining four “others” are independent.
The CVP, says Chainey, feel that many are complacent.
“So many don’t hold surgeries, really; they don’t hold meetings. We will continue to hold public meetings, after the elections, whether we win any seats or not.
“We want to shake the tree. We feel the incumbents are incompetent. Councillors often have to ‘toe the party line’ or act in the best interests of their national party above the interests of the local people they represent. We want to redress this problem with UK politics.”
He also sees the long-held office of the Ann Clwyd MP as partly responsible for the irritation with politics in general and the Labour Party in particular. This perception of a sinecure fuelled a stunt in which the CVP paraded a pantomime donkey around the town of Aberdare, where Clwyd was canvassing, with a “Drop the Dead Donkey” sign. Tasteless, perhaps, especially when targeted at an 80-year-old, but an irresistible take on the claim that, in the Valleys, you could put a red rosette on a donkey and get it elected.
It’s significant, I’m sure, that Clwyd was hugely in favour of the Iraq war. She has been dubbed, locally, as Baghdad Ann, a clear slur and one which again points to a rejection of the “big issues” which seem not to aid a struggling community. I perceive her as an occasional rebel, disagreeing on the Iraq war vote, but applauding her for the Bill on female genital mutilation.
The CVP’s candidates are men — all 10 of them. They’re local. One of them, co-founder Andrew Marsh, runs a shop supplying school uniforms, and is well known for his local campaigning. Gavin Williams runs a fast food van in a lay-by. Ray Dally wants a purposebuilt community centre for the village of Abernant — a policy which has a direct line to my heart; this is my village and it cries out for such a centre.
All candidates want open spaces for families, they want their parks reopened and maintained, they want paddling pools.
Chainey blasts the hoopla surrounding the project which saw Pontypridd Lido reopened recently. “A huge amount was spent in one place — and the rest of the paddling pools have been closed.”
It is a signifier of an old tactic, which has not fooled the Valleys’ people. There were often small industrial parks opened, providing relatively few jobs, but luring young people from their home towns, consigning them to travel by inadequate public transport, to a job which would last a few years, at best. This sense that Cynon Valley children will always provide lower-paid fodder for Cardiff or even Merthyr businesses does not go down well.
Andrew Chainey claims a bigger vision: “We can have 20-year vision for this area — why not? Why couldn’t there be a Silicon Valley? We have plenty of good, high-tech businesses, some of them run from small locations around here. That’s what we’re asking: Why not?”
I ask myself: would I consider a vote for anyone other than Labour, in my home town? I have no vote there. I asked Eira Walsh — aka the Comrade Mam — who does. “Well, the most important thing is that people get out and vote. The apathy here is terrible. I tell them: ‘Women threw themselves under horses or were force-fed in prison, to get us the vote. Use it’.”
My greatest desire for my home town, and valley: that the word “didorath” loses currency. My miner uncle, Daniel Lambert, taught me a Chartist verse, when I was seven: “The coming hope, the future day, When wrong to right shall bow; And hearts that have the courage, man, to make that future now.”
The Cynon Valley Party may not be marching under a red flag. But I think they’re shaking the tree.