Peter Lyons, a self-employed joiner from south Wales, usually votes Labour. Not this time. For this week’sNewport West byelection, he is looking elsewhere.
“I think party politics clearly isn’t working,” said Lyons. “I’ve voted Labour over the years. But I don’t think either of the main parties are capable at the moment. They are self-serving and cynical.”
Lyons is planning to vote for Renew, a fledgling pro-Europe party set up as a riposte to Brexit and mainstream policies. It is campaigning hard in Newport, with a city centre shop and bright, enthusiastic, idealistic workers. “They are taking the best ideas from all parts of politics,” said Lyons. “We need something different.”
In other times, the Newport West byelection – called following the death of its long-serving Labour MP, Paul Flynn – would be a simple, straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives.
When the seat was created in 1983, the Tories took it, but Flynn won the seat in 1987 and held on to it until his death aged 84 in February. In 2017 Flynn had a decent majority of 5,658, with the Tories second and Ukip a distant third.
But these are extraordinary times. In truth, nobody really thinks that a third party might come from nowhere and win, but there may be enough people like Lyons thinking differently (and enough Labour and Tory strategists otherwise engaged) to make it interesting.
It is worth remembering too that Newport, sandwiched between its glitzier neighbours Cardiff and Bristol, is a place for the rebel (the Chartists marched on Newport in the 19th century to fight for the rights of the impoverished working class) and the underdog – just this season the modest Newport County football club were giant-killers in this season’s FA Cup and even gave mighty Manchester City a fright.
Leanne, the supervisor at the Kettle Cafe, close to the Renew office, said she had voted Labour since she was 18 but would not this time: “I think it’s time for a change. I’m sick of listening to the same rubbish day in, day out.” She, too, is leaning towards Renew.
The Renew candidate, June Davies, is an economics teacher and mother of three. She said she “stumbled across” the party last year and liked what she heard. “For me, it’s about bringing in a more moderate voice, making sense of the chaos,” she said.
She pointed out that 11 parties were standing: “The vote will be split. People are coming from all sorts of angles.”
A hustings in the working class, multicultural area of Pillgwenlly, in the shadow of the city’s iconic Transporter Bridge, highlighted some of the angles.
Neither the Labour nor the Tory candidate attended. But others did including the Green party, which is fielding its deputy leader, Amelia Womack, who hails from Newport, and Plaid Cymru, which is hoping to make inroads following the appointment of a new leader, Adam Price.
Ukip’s candidate, the former Tory MP Neil Hamilton, also stayed away, but two parties led by former “Kippers” – For Britain and Democrats and Veterans – were represented. The For Britain candidate, Hugh Nicklin, did not endear himself by revealing he was from Herefordshire and that his main links with Newport were passing through on the M4 and once umpiring a cricket match there.
Brexit was, of course, debated, but other topics ranged from renewable power to immigration, from sex work to the state of the city centre (a beloved department store, Wildings, has just closed, and the number of tents pitched on street corners and patches of wasteland shows that homelessness is a major issue).
Lauren Goodland, a graphic designer who attended the hustings, was another who said she was switching from Labour. “I don’t disagree with Labour, but with the exhausting state of politics and the world, I’m fed up of the petty arguments and attitudes from main parties.”
She was impressed by how Womack stood up to the rightwingers. “It’s important to me that people of all cultures and sexualities feel safe in our city. Global warming is also a very big reason for my vote swaying. We need to think big. The problem is bigger than Newport, it’s bigger than the UK, but small changes can make a big difference.”
Nicholas Webb, who chaired the hustings and stood for the Tories in 2015, does not predict a shock. He believed that one the two big parties would win and suggested that the Tories may have had a chance of taking the seat had they thrown more resources at it.
But he said he had been impressed by the likes of Renew and the Social Democratic party, which supports Brexit.
“I do feel that with neither the current model of the Conservative party or Labour at a national level looking sustainable, we might be learning a little bit about the longer-term themes if we look at Renew and the SDP – each of whom are trying to define a different interpretation of a post-left/right politics.
“That is not to say these parties will be the ones to make the breakthrough in the future, but that their ideas have a resonance with how society has evolved and, for the moment at least, the old political parties have not.”
The Tory candidate, the councillor Matthew Evans, declined to speak to the Guardian, with his team saying he was not talking to the national press. Much of his campaign has focused not on Brexit but on the stalled plans to build a new motorway to ease pressure on the M4 through Newport, though this is a devolved matter and is in the hands of the Welsh government.
Hamilton also refused to be interviewed by the Guardian. Instead, Ukip put up one of its assembly members, David Rowlands, to chat. He emphasised that Newport was a leave city – 56% voted for Brexit – and claimed Labour and Tory voters would turn to his party.
The Labour candidate Ruth Jones, an NHS physiotherapist, said people wanted to speak on the doorstep about issues such as the hardship created by universal credit and fear of crime.
She was vaguer on some of the other issues. On Brexit she said: “All I can say is that I will not vote for a bad deal for Newport West.” On the new motorway: “Something has to be done. It’s got to be an M4 relief road. Which route it’s not my decision.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, visited Newport on Saturday to lend his support. Jones accepted that people were frustrated with politicians, which made her job of hanging on to the seat all the more delicate. “There’s no such thing as a safe seat. A byelection throws up some very funny results so I’m taking nothing for granted.”
2017 general election result Labour’s veteran Paul Flynn won with 22,723 votes, with a majority of 5,658 over the Conservatives. Ukip were third with 2.5% of the vote, followed by Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dem and Greens. Flynn died in February aged 84.
The EU referendum 56% in favour of leave in Newport. Turnout: 70%
Key local issue The plan to cut a new 14-mile stretch of motorway through the nearby Gwent Levels to ease congestion. The decision about the route has been put on hold because of the byelection.
Economy Newport is Wales’ third largest city. Its profile grew after hosting the Nato summit in 2014 and the Ryder Cup in 2010. 80% of people are economically active – compared with 75% for Wales and 78.5% for Britain. Gross weekly pay is £520 for Newport, £519 for Wales, £571 for Britain.
Parties contesting the byelection
Plaid Cymru, Renew, Conservative, Ukip, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SDP, For Britain, Abolish the Welsh Assembly, Democrats and Veterans, Green