UK

Gower Constituency, South Wales, Could Return To Labour Following Shock 2015 General Election Result

'It's really important that we get this seat back this time.'

06/06/2017 20:12 BST | Updated 07/06/2017 13:30 BST

Under the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the old adage ‘every vote counts’ can sometimes ring hollow. But in the south Wales constituency of Gower, it’s actually true. A Labour stronghold for more than a century, Gower turned Blue in 2015 by the smallest majority in the General Election - just 27 votes.

Located on the south Wales coast, the constituency spans 128 square miles and has a voting population of about 62,000. Having returned a Labour MP at every General Election since 1910, the Gower’s 2015 result was a crushing blow for the Labour Party, which saw similar losses across Wales and the rest of the UK.

Since 1922 Labour has won the most votes in Wales at every General Election. But the 2015 vote showed that Labour cannot always count on Welsh voters for their emphatic support. 

And since the EU referendum, which saw 52.5% of voters back Leave, there are now suggestions that Brexit could sound the death knell for Labour in the region. Brexit is ranked as the most important issue for Welsh voters heading to the polls, with many looking to Theresa May to negotiate a smooth exit from the EU.

Wales receives an estimated £245 million more from the EU that it pays in and unions have warned Brexit may wipe out Welsh farming, which receives subsidies from the continent. Despite Wales benefitting considerably from the EU, receiving more than £4 billion of European money since 2000, only five out of the 22 council areas voted Remain.

And as Ukip voters are expected to abandon the party for the Tories, this could have dramatic consequences for the Labour vote across Wales.

In Gower, Labour voters now fear that if they don’t steal the seat back from Tory Byron Davies on June 8, they may never regain the contituency. 

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Tory MP Byron Davies, front centre, won the seat with a majority of just 27 votes in 2015.

“It’s really important that we get this seat back this time,” Labour supporter and Mumbles resident, Lin Gay, tells HuffPost UK. “If we don’t, I don’t think we’ll ever have it again and I would like to think that we can take it back.” 

The 56-year-old says losing by just 27 votes was “soul destroying” and is convinced “that those 27 votes were out there, amongst people who thought it was a safe seat”.

“It has always been a Labour seat, and a lot of people thought it always would be and didn’t bother to vote. They regretted it the next morning, and rightly so. They should be ashamed of themselves and they should all get out and vote this time,” she says.

In 2015 the Conservatives received 15,862 votes, followed by Labour with 15,835 votes. Ukip came third with 4,773 and Plaid Cymru got 3,051.

The constituency covers a large and diverse area in south Wales. There’s a larger population in the traditionally working class areas of Gorseinon, Gowerton, Penllergaer, and Pontarddulais in the north east of the constituency. While in the south west Peninsular area, which includes the popular beaches of Langland, Caswell, Rhossili, there is a stronger Conservative base.

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Gower, in south Wales, came under the control of the Tories in 2015 after more than a century under Labour power.

Leadership Matters: Theresa May vs Jeremy Corbyn

The first Welsh poll of the General Election campaign put the Tories 10 points ahead of the Labour Party - an unprecedented result in Wales.

May’s popularity was also at an all-time high amongst Welsh voters. For the first time in history, a Tory Prime Minister was almost as popular as the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones. In comparison, Jeremy Corbyn was polling unpopular among Welsh voters.

Yet the most recent poll, published on June 1, shows dramatic gains for Labour, which stands at 46% and the Conservatives at 35%. May, who at the start of the election campaign was once considered an asset to Conservative candidates, is proving less popular than expected. The Prime Minister’s poll ratings have dropped in the course of the campaign, while Corbyn’s popularity has increased. 

“Leader images always matter,” Jac Larner from the Wales Governance Centre at the University of Cardiff tells HuffPost UK. “The most popular leader pretty much always wins.”

But experts agree that the Conservatives’ emphasis on leadership “may be much less of an advantage than it was”.

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Mumbles, in Gower, has a stronger Labour support base.

“The May versus Corbyn contrast that the Conservatives have sought to make central to the campaign could be working much less well for them now than it was doing,” Professor Roger Scully from the University of Cardiff writes in his election blog.

The recent change in attitudes towards the party leaders, coupled with Labour’s victory in the local elections in May, makes Thursday’s election result in Gower even more difficult to call.

Gower MP Davies, a former Metropolitan Police officer, maintains that he is “hopeful” that he can retain the seat with the added support of those who voted Ukip two years ago. “They [Ukip voters] have got to vote somewhere,” Davies tells HuffPost UK. “And if they want a strong Brexit then they need to be supporting the Prime Minister, and that’s the reaction that we’re getting on the street.”

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The most recent Welsh election poll puts Labour much further ahead than originally predicted.

But May’s decline in popularity in Wales could impact on how constituents in Gower vote on Thursday. Last month the Prime Minister was derided for u-turning on her flagship social care policy just four days after it was announced as the headline measure in the Tory manifesto. While May denied it was a u-turn, health secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted the idea of a cap was being abandoned because it was not “fair”.

When asked whether he thinks May’s recent u-turns will affect his chances of getting re-elected, Davies says it’s “not a big worry” as “it’s an old story now”. The Tory MP echoes May’s words and quibbles with the term “u-turn”, instead calling the Prime Minister’s backtracking “an explanation”.

“It’s not really a change of policy because it still stands,” he says. “I would certainly agree that it wasn’t sold very well in the way it was portrayed but... let’s have the debate [in Westminster] first before we start blaming and accusing people of u-turns.” 

Davies is being challenged by Labour candidate Tonia Antoniazzi, a former Welsh women’s rugby player and secondary school teacher.

Antoniazzi has the added benefit of her party leader rising in popularity in the polls. Antoniazzi admits she has received “mixed” reactions on the doorstep about Corbyn, but says voters have warmed to him since the Labour manifesto was released.

“What I am hearing on the doorstep is ‘I couldn’t stand the bloke before but I have got a real respect for him’, and that is literally in the last couple of weeks.

“People are getting the opportunity to listen to him.”

Gareth Llewelyn
Labour candidate and former Welsh women's rugby player Tonia Antoniazzi campaigning in Gower.

Welsh Labour has traditionally been a strong brand in Wales, with some Labour candidates taking the “calculated decision”, according to political expert Larner, to align themselves with the Welsh Labour, rather than UK Labour.

Asked whether she promotes herself as a Welsh Labour candidate or a UK Labour candidate, Antoniazzi tells HuffPost UK: “I just see it being a united front. We’re Labour, we’re Welsh Labour. We’re the Welsh Labour MPs that will be going to Westminster delivering for Wales and getting the best deal for Wales.”

In a tactical move being adopted across the UK, the Green Party has decided not to put up a candidate in Gower. In 2015 the Green Party candidate picked up 1,161 votes. 

“We are in the fortunate situation this year where I have got a very Green agenda and the Green Party have said that they don’t want to put a candidate forward because they want us to win the seat from the Conservatives,” Antoniazzi says. “It means something to the people in this constituency to win this seat back,” the Labour candidate adds.  

What Are The Issues That Could Swing The Vote?

Ask a Labour voter and a Conservative voter what they think the most important issue is when heading to the polls on Thursday and you’ll probably get very different answers. 

“Labour is the most trusted on the NHS in Wales,” Larner explains. “May is the most trusted on Brexit, which is the most important issue in Wales.”

Voters HuffPost UK spoke with echoed those sentiments.

Gene and Dudley Sullivan, who live in Newton, say they will be supporting Davies come Thursday as Brexit is their main priority in this election. 

Gene Sullivan, 70, tells HuffPost UK: “Never mind all the other things, if you haven’t got someone to get you out of there [the EU] with a good deal, you’re lost.”

Dudley Sullivan, 79, adds that he still thinks “very highly” of Theresa May”, saying: “She’s a decision maker.”  

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Tory voter Dudley Sullivan backs 'decision maker' Theresa May and believes Brexit is the most important issue in this election campaign.

Thursday will be the first time 18-year-old Jess Beech can vote in a General Election.

The Mumbles teenager says she will be backing Labour, citing NHS funding and student university fees as the main reasons why she feels the affiliation with Corbyn’s party. 

“I feel like we need to pull together a little bit and just vote for Labour. I know everyone is going to have different opinions, but I do think that Wales would be better off, like focusing on our NHS, focusing on getting the kids to be able to afford university when they get older,” she tells HuffPost UK.

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In her first General Election, Jess Beech will be voting for Labour, who are proving popular among young voters in Wales and the rest of the UK.

Yet despite Corbyn’s growing popularity in the polls, Davies claims the Labour leader and the “package” he comes with - Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell - “worries people” he speaks to while canvassing in Gower.

“They’re concerned about their politics,” the Tory incumbent says. “The fact that they are promising an awful lot of things that they’re not providing the financial backing for, or proof of financial backing, and they’re afraid that they will send the country into a great deal of debt. And of course taxation will go through the roof and those so-called rich people will leave the country and we will be stuck with a bankrupt UK. That’s the thing I’m getting from the doorstep.”

While Labour has provided costings in their manifesto, the Tories have been heavily criticised for their lack of sums. When asked whether voters have criticised the Conservative manifesto for not having costings in it, Davies replies: “It’s never come up once. Nobody has ever mentioned that to me.”

Meanwhile, Antoniazzi says voters she has spoken with are most concerned about hardship in the constituency. “It’s the prospective cuts to pensioners, it’s the triple lock on pensions, that’s a big talking point,” she says. 

Can Labour Win The Seat Back? 

Working class support has always been strong in the northern parts of Gower, such as Gorseinon, while in the Peninsular in the south, there has been a larger Conservative base. 

But experts believe the movement of wealthier people to Gower could have tipped the balance in favour of the Conservatives in 2015.

“Over the last 20 or 30 years there has been quite a significant demographic change in the peninsular area of the Gower,” Larner says.

“So what you have seen is the average levels of education and the average levels of income go up and wealthier people have moved to the area... and house prices have gone up. If you take all of this into account then maybe you would have seen it coming.” 

Despite losing the Westminster seat in 2015, Labour continues to perform well when it comes to local elections. Last month, Labour held control of the wards which make up the Gower constituency, securing 48.5% of the votes, with the Conservatives on 25.5%.

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Experts say a demographic change in Gower over the last two or three decades may have contributed to Labour's fall in the last General Election.

“The results were fairly surprising because you would expect in that area for the Tories to do quite well in the run up to the General Election,” Larner says. “In the whole Swansea area Labour made gains which is quite surprising.”

“In all the urban areas in Wales, Labour did very well - or rather much better than I think anyone would have expected - and the Conservatives didn’t make anywhere near the sorts of gains they wanted to.”

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats may also have had an effect on the outcome of the Gower election two years ago. In 2010 the Lib Dem candidate received 7,947 votes. Five years later the Lib Dems picked up just 1,552 votes - falling from third place to fifth for the first time since the party was formed.

“They’re struggling to really be a party in Wales any more,” Larner says.

The disintergration of the Lib Dems, coupled with the decision of the Green Party not to put forward a candidate in Gower could be to Labour’s advantage on Thursday. But the 4,000 supporters who came out in favour of Ukip in 2015 may give Davies the larger majority he needs to tighten the Tories’ grip on Gower.

The recent swing in the polls have made predictions even more difficult, with Labour seeing a startling rise in popularity in the past few days.

“Given the fact that Labour now have a significant lead in Wales according to the polls and the local election results in the area, where Labour finished comfortably ahead of the Tories, it’s certainly much closer now than first anticipated,” Larner says. “All I can say is that its too close to call,” - a significantly more optimistic outlook for Labour than experts were expecting when the snap election was first called.