When I told a friend I was selected as the Senedd candidate for the Welsh Conservatives for Rhondda, their instant reaction was “I would be careful if I were you, they don’t like Tories up there”, writes Tom Parkhill.
I encountered a similar attitude a number of times in my candidacy for the seat, but my experience in Rhondda and in other Valleys seats was not hostile in the slightest. I encountered friendly people, interested in what I had to say and frankly I had far fewer people swearing at me on the campaign trail than I have received in canvassing sessions in Cardiff or even the Vale of Glamorgan.
People were largely ready to listen to what we had to say as a party, even if they ultimately didn’t elect Conservative candidates. Perhaps though, this illustrates progress in seats which have been defined by their hostility to the Conservative Party over the last century. This was reflected in a record number of votes for the Senedd elections in all three of the Valleys seats; Pontypridd, Cynon Valley and Rhondda.
Is this the start of sea change in the Valleys?
Could Labour’s dominance be challenged like in the red wall seats in North Wales or dare I say see us take seats like in the North East of England?
Firstly, lets put these record results into perspective. As the candidate in Rhondda, I received 1,490 votes, this is approximately 1,000 votes less than I received in my Cardiff Council seat in 2017, whilst Mia Rees in Cynon Valley received 2,795 votes in a very energetic campaign. Even though our results are records, it really shows we are still a long way off mounting a significant challenge to Labour. The biggest barrier in these areas is frankly a lack of members and therefore campaigning infrastructure.
In Rhondda, though we picked up members in the campaign, our membership resides in the 10s rather than the 100s. This is a huge barrier for us as a party in these areas and it means that we can’t currently effectively communicate and campaign outside of election times.
As it stands, it is difficult to counter the argument I faced on the doorstep. “You Tories don’t do anything around here” when if we are honest with ourselves, in the recent past we haven’t done enough to break through locally; and nationally the area is not always high up on the priority list for UK ministers to visit.
That being said it was welcome to see Robert Jenrick visiting Treorchy last week to highlight the new levelling up fund and how the UK Government is making a difference for areas in Rhondda. This is an approach we need to take more often in the Valleys, lets tell people what we are doing and how it positively benefits their lives.
As a party we are often guilty of waiting for Labour to make mistakes and we have been particularly blasé over a number of years about what Welsh Labour do in the Valleys.
I have heard it said often, Welsh Labour take their votes for granted and they do nothing. But I can categorically say that in the Rhondda, this was certainly not the case. Welsh Labour ran an efficient and community focused campaign. It did not feel like they had taken the electorate’s support for granted; it felt like they had listened following the shock of 2016 and reacted accordingly. They ran a Unionist campaign against the separatist incumbent who by all accounts ran a shambolic defence of the seat.
That is not to say that Welsh Labour have been a success for the Valleys. After all, they have singularly failed to bring a significant boost to the prosperity of the region over multiple generations. But we must acknowledge that if the Conservatives are ever to win in these communities, we need community activists who can show what we can do in these areas.
This is the only way we will compete here in the long-term.
A good start to this would be to offer the electorate more Conservative candidates at the next Council elections. For a national party, we should be ashamed that we were only able to field a solitary candidate for the 22 seats in the Rhondda Constituency, at the last County Council elections.
We have to be in the race to actually win it.
We have a good example in Pontypridd of where this approach is working and perhaps is the one constituency where the tide may be turning.
Joel James, our newly elected list MS managed a record vote share of 5,658, which I acknowledge is still not large in contrast to other constituencies. However, it did mean that he was only 5,853 votes from toppling the winning Labour candidate. In contrast, the Labour majorities in our two secondary target seats in the South Wales Central region, Bridgend and Cardiff North which were 4,064 and 6,593 respectively.
In this context, Pontypridd looks to be a seat that we could start to really compete in, particularly if Joel James can use his new status as a regional MS to effectively tackle issues and highlight what a Welsh Conservative MS from Pontypridd can do for the area.
By the next election, it would not surprise me if Pontypridd is being discussed as a potential target seat. Although this will depend on the RCT association’s ability to be able to transform itself from a Lib Demesque team of insurgents winning Council seats to a bone-fide target seat operation.
This will be a big challenge, but one which is not insurmountable by the next Senedd election in 2026.
Overall, the recent Senedd elections showed in the Valleys that Welsh Labour are in a much better shape than their former heartlands in the North East of England or Scotland — I don’t foresee a collapse anytime soon. That being said, the electorate are more open to alternatives to Welsh Labour than anytime in the recent past.
There is a crack in the door for the Welsh Conservatives to try and prise open. In Pontypridd we already have our foot in the door.
In Rhondda, we need to start knocking on that door and show we have a presence in their communities.
Cllr Tom Parkhill was the Welsh Conservative Senedd candidate for Rhondda.