ANALYSIS: Brexit set to dominate at the Newport West by-election following death of Paul Flynn
5 min read
The Newport West by-election has been announced for 4 April. How are the two main parties sizing the seat up?
Labour and the Conservatives gearing up for a fresh clash over Brexit in Wales. The two parties will duke it out in the Newport West by-election, set for 4 April - just days after the UK is due to leave the EU. The seat was vacated by Labour veteran Paul Flynn after he died aged 84 last month.
The seat has been held by Labour since 1987, when Flynn snatched it from Conservative Mark Robinson, who served as a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher. The majorities secured by Flynn in the eight elections he fought ranged from 2,708 in his first victory and 14,357 in the Blair surge of 1997. His majority at the 2017 snap election was 5,658 - so not a wildly safe bet when the political climate is so volatile.
Labour is quietly confident of holding onto the seat - although there is an understanding as with all by-elections that voters will need a reason to head to the polling stations. The party will hope to keep the campaign around domestic issues such as the M4 relief road - a long-running project that was dropped back in 1991 but was revived in 2013 and is expected to be finished around 2022. But the elephant in the room during the race is likely to be Brexit.
Britain is scheduled to be outside the EU by the time voters cast their ballots, but after Theresa May announced MPs will get a vote on extending Article 50 there is every chance Brexit will be delayed. Jeremy Corbyn may have whittled a rod for the Labour back by throwing its weight behind calls for a second referendum on EU membership this week. The decision might not go down too well in the constituency that voted Leave by 53.6% according to Dr Chris Hanretty, a reader in politics at the University of East Anglia who mapped the Brexit vote to parliamentary seats.
Labour will push the message in the former industrial zone that nobody voted for Brexit to see the community become poorer and see the steelworks close after a no-deal departure. There are also hopes that the chaos of negotiations might pull voters back from assuming the Brexit debate is done and dusted and needs to be delivered immediately at any cost.
The Labour candidate - Ruth Jones - is said to be independently-minded like Paul Flynn and is prepared to stand on a platform that not all voters will agree with. But on the surface she fits snugly with the Labour brand: a physiotherapist who has worked in the local NHS for over 30 years. Jones is a former President of the Wales Trade Union Congress and previously fought against Tory David Davies for his Monmouth seat.
She will be speaking up for the Labour-run NHS, despite the incessant attacks from the Tories about the health service in Wales. The party hopes to capitalise on some of the regional arguments it makes about the Welsh administration trying to better fund public services in spite of cuts from Westminster. She told PoliticsHome: "My first priority is making sure we stand up for Newport West. I will not support a botched Tory Brexit Deal or worse a No Deal Brexit that would make people in my home communities poorer. There are also big local issues that we need to talk about. We need a road and public transport solution for congestion on the M4 around Newport."
The Tories are also hoping to push the local issues, reiterating that the M4 relief road will be central to the campaign. But candidate Matthew Evans notes that Brexit will be high on the agenda. “I voted to leave, I campaigned to leave, Newport voted to leave and I couldn’t think of anything worse than having a second referendum,” he told PoliticsHome. “Clearly that will be something which will distinguish the two main political parties during the campaign.” In a swipe at Labour he argued there is no “appetite” in the seat for a second referendum “among the working class, Labour council estates”. He added: “It’s been more of an elite middle class option rather than people generally clamouring for a second referendum.”
Evans is the leader of the Conservative council group in Newport and a former mayor of the city. On whether the Tories stand a chance to take the seat, he said: "It should be one of the safest Labour seats in the country but I wouldn't have put my name forward if I didn’t think there was an outside chance of us taking the seat in the current situation.”
The seat is undoubtedly set to be a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives after they were the dominant parties at the 2017 election. Expectations are that Labour would keep hold of it - but with current polls generally in favour of the Tories and the ongoing national schism over Brexit, the result on the night is not entirely in the bag.