By-election candidate Tom Davies on Brexit, rural policy and Lib Dem tactics

Sienna Rodgers

On Thursday, voters in Brecon and Radnorshire will go to the polls to elect a new MP after a successful recall petition unseated Chris Davies. Although he was convicted of claiming false expenses, the Tories have reselected him as their candidate.

Brecon and Radnorshire in Powys, Wales, has not been Labour since the 1970s and the Lib Dems are expected to win the seat. But Labour candidate Tom Davies reckons by-elections are less predictable and Brexit is not the only issue in this contest. This is an important vote: whichever opposition party gains the Westminster seat, Boris Johnson’s working majority will fall to just one.

We spoke to Tom Davies earlier this week about Brexit, popular policies, Boris Johnson and local Lib Dem tactics. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the focus of your campaign?

A lot of the media and certain other parties have tried to portray it as a Brexit by-election. That’s certainly not how we’re looking at it: there are far greater issues than just Brexit. We’re looking at the national effects of austerity, which are really taking hold in this constituency. What we’re hearing on the doorstep is more about people struggling to make ends meet and money not going into services than about Brexit.

Are voters spontaneously bringing up Brexit on the doorstep?

There is a section of that, yes. You can introduce yourself and people will say ‘no, thank you’ because of your stance on Brexit or ‘yes, I’ll talk to you because you’re for a confirmatory vote’. It is an issue but it’s not the only issue. What we’re focussing on is austerity, but also losing between £850m and £1bn from Welsh government funding. In Brecon and Radnorshire, as part of Powys, we’re seeing a 9.5% council tax increase to pay for Tory cuts. (Powys County Council is Tory-Independent run.)

The reason we’re not getting the funding from the Welsh government is because their budget has been cut from Westminster. But in spite of the Tory and Lib Dem coalition austerity measures, the Welsh government is still pumping record amounts of money into the NHS. We’re still pumping £1.4bn over the last five years into the new schools programme, and the Welsh government has built 41 new schools across Wales. We’re also putting an extra £100m into education, and we’re offering families some of the best childcare offers across the UK. The message is that despite the Tories in Westminster, it’s the Welsh Labour government that is delivering for the people of Brecon and Radnorshire.

It’s quite a nuanced message to get across in some ways. Do you feel that people are receptive to it?

Yeah, absolutely, because it’s in combination with the national policies that we have. We’ve got the policies as a party to really transform the country as a whole.

Are there particular policies that you’ve identified as especially popular?

Because it’s a rural constituency, people are very interested in John McDonnell’s plans for a Post Bank. I certainly think it’s well worth exploring and developing. We’ve lost a lot of high street banks in this area and people need somewhere to be able to do their banking.

We’re obviously looking at more funding for the devolved nations of the UK as a national party, and that is absolutely welcome. Also going down well are the pledges for a £10-per-hour real living wage, lifting the public sector pay cap and the green industrial revolution, which was a big hit in the hustings.

Turning to Brexit, do you think Labour is now a Remain party?

I would say that we are probably are. But what we’re doing is we’re giving the option that if the public still want to leave the EU, then those people can vote for a deal. Parliament is deadlocked. The Tories rejected our deal, which I’d say was closest to what was promised during the referendum. Because the Tories have rejected that, it’s only right for that to be put back to the people.

We as a party, and I certainly, will not accept any deal that will make us worse off than being in the EU. Any deal that has been put forward at the moment, save perhaps our own, is exactly that. In our stance – confirmatory vote and remain – I think we’ve got the sensible solution.

Some Remainers might have wanted to see a ‘Remain alliance’, which if we’re including Labour would have required you to stand aside. What do you think of that idea?

I am not in favour of that idea. As a constituency, we have been building on our vote share over the last few elections. We have a number of other factors at play, not just Brexit. I won’t forgive Lib Dems for their part in austerity. I won’t forgive them for their voting record during the coalition government. The last Lib Dem MP for this constituency lost his seat. He voted for welfare cuts, and I won’t be seen to be accepting that.

Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, has been public in saying he’s thrown his support behind the Lib Dems. That’s him playing politics. He is well aware that Plaid Cymru hasn’t had a good showing in this constituency recently, and I don’t think he wants to lose their deposit. As a local party, national party and I personally would not want to see the Welsh socialist option being taken off the ballot paper.

Have you found that voters are hesitating between Labour and Lib Dem?

Yes. We always find that. People who are sympathetic to Labour sometimes vote Lib Dem to try to keep the Tories out. That hasn’t worked over the last few elections. It certainly didn’t work in 2015 and 2017. It didn’t work in 2010 either because, even though the Lib Dems were elected, they turned around and went into coalition with the Conservatives. That is not what Labour voters would have voted Lib Dem for.

Why do you think the Tories selected Chris Davies again as their candidate?

I couldn’t speak for them but I think it’s shocking that they have done. People actually went out of their way to sign a recall petition. When Chris Davies says ‘81% of the electorate didn’t sign it’, that flies in the face of the 10,000 who did go out and sign it.

I say they went out of their way to sign the petition because – being the third largest constituency in the UK, and the biggest in England and Wales by area – there were only six stations that people could have gone to sign the recall petition.

It is shocking that they were prepared to put him up again. I’m firmly of the view that he should have resigned. He has been peddling the line that it was an honest mistake: that can’t be right when the conviction was one of dishonesty. All the public money that went on the recall petition could have been spent on public services.

Have the conversations on the doorstep changed since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, or since it was obvious that he was going to win the leadership contest?

It was obvious that he was going to win and people were concerned about it. I have not yet met a single person who is happy that Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister. What I have found is that people are mortified by that prospect.

How has this snap by-election campaign been different from standing as a candidate before it was called?

I was selected in March, and that was to fight the general election campaign. This one has come rather more suddenly. It’s been a steep learning curve. It’s one I’ve certainly taken to, and I’ve learnt a lot. It has been different. We’re trying to fight against austerity as well as Brexit. The start of this campaign was dominated by claims that this is a Brexit election, but it’s not. This is a by-election, so anything can happen.

Have you had many visiting canvassers from elsewhere in the country?

Yes, we’ve had quite a few, some from as far as London and Oxford. We’ve had a lot from South Wales, some from neighbouring constituencies. Steve has joined us from Leicester for the last week.

The key thing is that this is a fantastic constituency to campaign in, and it’s absolutely stunning in terms of scenery. We’ve seen the Lib Dems bussing canvassers in so if any LabourList readers are keen and want to lend a hand, they are more than welcome.

It’s really important that we carry on getting the message out. Because of the size of the constituency, because it’s a by-election and because turnout is going to be key in this election, polling day is going to be absolutely crucial for us.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

We’re seeing Lib Dem support across the constituency, possibly to keep Chris Davies out. But we’re also seeing a lot of misleading tactics from the Lib Dems. One leaflet earlier last week said the words “Jane Dodds lives locally in Welshpool”. Welshpool is not local – it’s in a neighbouring constituency. That in itself is misleading.

We’ve heard rumours of one activist saying to voters in one area that Labour aren’t standing in this election so the voters who are naturally Labour should be voting Lib Dem. Well, here I am. I’m standing. It’s really misleading tactics from the Lib Dems. Any support that we can get to counter this disinformation would be more than welcome.

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