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Mon, 10 August 2020

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Alex Davies-Jones MP: 'It was heart-breaking seeing all these areas of my constituency under water'

Alex Davies-Jones MP: 'It was heart-breaking seeing all these areas of my constituency under water'
9 min read

Life in Westminster has got off to a whirlwind start for Pontypridd’s first woman MP. The Labour backbencher talks to Sebastian Whale about the party leadership, breastfeeding in the Commons and why a job in DCMS would be her dream role

Alex Davies-Jones was eating lunch outside the Colosseum in Rome when a predatory pigeon tried to snatch a sandwich from her hands. Locked in a desperate struggle, the pigeon’s feet got stuck in her hair while its wings flapped against her head, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller, The Birds.
Davies-Jones, then nineteen, would never recover from this “pigeon trauma”. “Ever since then, I’ve been completely petrified of pigeons,” she says. “So much so, that I will cross the road if there is a big gathering of them.”
Peering out the corner of her window is the last few yards of Whitehall, a road that leads towards Trafalgar Square, a renowned hotbed of pigeon activity. “I don’t go down that way,” Davies-Jones says, like a person who has just seen a ghost. “If they fly towards me, I will literally hide behind people and duck.”
It is no wonder, then, that the Labour MP rails against being “pigeon-holed” about her political views. “I’m a member of the Labour party, I class myself as a socialist. Labour values are the values of my family,” she says.
After nominating Emily Thornberry, Davies-Jones is backing Sir Keir Starmer for the Labour leadership. “If you had to say where I was, I’m probably left of centre, but I wouldn’t say I’m a Blairite or a Corbynite, or whatever the Starmer supporters are called. I’m a member of the Labour party,” she explains. 

Davies-Jones, the new MP for Pontypridd, also nominated Ian Murray, Labour’s only MP in Scotland, for the deputy leadership. “I thought it was really important we have that devolution voice there. I recognise I’m backing Ian and Keir, two men. It’s not something I ever wanted to be doing – I didn’t come into politics to champion white men essentially – but it’s what’s happened,” she says. “Equally though, I think Angela [Rayner] or Dr Rosena [Allin-Khan] would be fantastic, even Dawn [Butler]. We’re really lucky to have the calibre of candidates that we’ve got.”

Davies-Jones was born in Tonyrefail in south Wales. Her earliest memory is being lost in a market when she was around five years old, blowing on a whistle to get the attention of her concerned mother and grandmother, who were frantically searching through stalls to find her. 

At Tonyrefail Comprehensive School, Davies-Jones excelled. “My friends would probably say I was the teacher’s pet and I was the person who always had to be the best in class and things,” she admits. If a fellow pupil got a higher grade, she would be “tamping”. “I would be that person to say, alright, I’m going to beat you next time,” she says. “I loved school; it was a big thing for me.”

Her father is an ex-miner who was involved with the National Union of Mineworkers. Davies-Jones recalls seeing him in tears when Labour won the 1997 election. “My dad’s not a big crier, he’s a big guy, big in stature, big in nature, not really one for showing emotion,” she says. When she asked her father why he was crying, he replied: “I never thought I’d see a Labour government again.” Her mother too is a Labour voter, bar a brief dalliance with the Lib Dems in 2010. “She’s come back thankfully and she’s a big Keir Starmer fan.”

Growing up, her aspirations fluctuated. Her hopes of becoming a marine biologist were dashed by a snorkelling experience in Cyprus that left her “petrified”. Davies-Jones, whose brother is a police officer, also flirted with forensic science, largely due to the TV show CSI, which was her favourite programme. Her sibling, who is twelve years older, talked her out of it. Next came medicine, but that was ruled out due a dislike of “strong smells”. 

Her first job came in a bowling alley at 16. She also helped out at the local workmen’s club which her grandparents ran. “I would go over and help call the bingo numbers, and I would sing to entertain everybody in the local club. My nan used to sing opera in the local clubs,” she says. As well as singing, Davies-Jones plays the cornet, violin, piano, and clarinet. 

Davies-Jones studied law and politics at Cardiff University. After graduating, she helped with the Yes! To Fairer Votes campaign during the AV referendum. “I should have known then that referendums weren’t any good for our country,” she quips. She also had a brief stint working as a researcher for Owen Smith, her predecessor as MP for Pontypridd, and for Welsh Assembly Member, Mick Antoniw. 

Having decided that law was not for her, Davies-Jones pursued a career with words. She worked as a press and communications officer for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, before moving to Dwr Cymru Welsh Water as a Community Engagement Manager, a job that she “loved”. In 2012, aged 23, she was elected as a community councillor, and became a local council for Rhondda Cynon Taf Council five years later.
On 29 October 2019, Owen Smith announced on social media that he was resigning as an MP. Davies-Jones was on maternity leave with her son when a friend sent her the tweet. “This is your time,” they told her. “My phone blew up,” she recalls. Over the next 24 hours, she spoke to her family to decide whether she should put her name forward for selection.

The calculation was not simple – Davies-Jones had a young baby in tow, politics had been toxic for more than a year, and she had a career she loved. Andrew Morgan, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, convinced her to go for it. On 5 November, she was selected as Labour’s candidate for Pontypridd. More than a month later, Jones was elected with a majority of just under 6,000. In doing so, she became the first woman to represent Pontypridd in the Commons. “Seeing what I’ve achieved in politics, for my dad especially, it’s been huge for him. He’s been really, really proud,” she says.

For a self-confessed “adrenaline junkie”, it was the logical decision (as a former air cadet, she has flown a Nimrod. She has also abseiled, and zipwired in Snowdonia. Jumping out of a plane is on her bucket list). Her mum travels with her to London to help look after the baby, and she returns with her husband to see her stepchildren on the weekends. “It was a big change for all of us, but I’m just so grateful to have the family and support that I’ve got to be able to do it,” she says. And her old boss is never too far away in case she needs any advice. “I’ve met up with [Owen] since the election and he’s been really supportive. I know, just as he always is, if I ever need him, he’s at the end of the phone.”

At the start of the year, Davies-Jones went to see Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, to ask for clarity surrounding the rules on breastfeeding in the Chamber. “If anybody wants to do it, they can do it,” Hoyle told her. “I’m not here to stop anybody.”

She says: “It’s really good to know that if needed, that can be done. It just goes to show that this place is moving with the times. It’s not family-friendly all the time, but the allowances that can be made I’m really grateful for.”

This month, Davies-Jones was handed her first crisis, after her constituency experienced severe flooding. “Over 1,000 properties throughout our local authority have been devastated. The cost to private properties is in excess of £150m and we’re looking at a £30m bill for our local authority to pick up as well in terms of damage to infrastructure, roads, bridges, that type of thing,” she says. 

“Last Sunday was heart-breaking, waking up and seeing all these areas of my constituency under water that had never flooded before. That was the biggest thing - if we’d had it before, we could have prepared more, we would have known what we were facing.”

Inundated with messages from people asking how to help, Davies-Jones set up a Crowdfunder. At the time of writing, it has raised around £30,000. “It’s been incredible; the sense of community spirit. Everybody pulling together is the big story from this,” she says. Davies-Jones was a signatory to a letter to Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, calling for a £30m grant to pay for repair and restoration work across Rhondda Cynon Taff at the upcoming budget.  
Boris Johnson has faced criticism for failing to visit any flood-hit areas. “It’s been really, really disappointing that he’s been nowhere to be seen. I’m not asking specifically for him to come to me in Pontypridd, even though we were really badly affected, but he could have visited anywhere that was badly flooded,” Davies-Jones argues. “Jeremy came to visit, we had Prince Charles come to visit, and it was quite telling that our prime minister hasn’t been anywhere to be seen, or that Cobra hasn’t been convened.”

Though Davies-Jones did not have any political heroes growing up, she counts herself as an admirer of congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jacinda Arden, the prime minister of New Zealand. She recently joined the Women’s and Equalities Committee and hopes to extend the legislation on upskirting to apply to street harassment, so that catcalling can be made a crime. As for her dream role, she tells me: “Music is really important to me, I’m really into my sport, culture is a big one. DCMS is where my heart would ever be one day.” 

Though the start of her parliamentary career has been something of a whirlwind, Davies-Jones is finding her feet. She has finally appointed two members of staff – one in Westminster and one in the constituency – and has already done her maiden speech. It seems the only thing that could derail her is a school of unruly pigeons. 


Pet hate?

“Loud chewing. My husband does it and it really bothers me. I just glare at him.”

Describe yourself in three words:

“Bubbly, talkative, passionate.”

First album?

“Easy. S Club 7. Of course it was!”

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