“Things will begin to feel better for the ordinary person on the street — the ordinary person like me, frankly”. It is this optimistic attitude and confidence in her party’s governing record that has Emma Lane, Conservative PPC for Swansea West, setting her sights high for the 2015 general election.
“I think for Swansea, it’s time for a change. The lead that the incumbent got in the last election was absolutely obliterated compared to that of his predecessor, and obviously the Lib Dems did really well in 2010. But as we know, their vote is collapsing left, right, and centre.”
In 2010, the Conservatives trailed Labour incumbent Geraint Davies MP by 5000 votes. The Lib Dem tide that almost swept the seat on the back of the Swansea University votes put the Conservatives in third place. But with student faith in Mr Clegg routed across the country by the tuition fee U-turn, last election’s result looks unlikely to be repeated.
The question is, as always, where the swinging votes will head. And Lane thinks she’s in with a fighting chance — even with the student population, who are turned off the Lib Dems by their collaboration with Conservatives in coalition. It’s counterintuitive to picture students swinging from Lib Dem to Tory — or indeed, the older voters who tend towards the Left of Liberal. Are her designs on the student vote realistic?
“I think so — the students who vote tend to be the switched on cookies. They take the long term view, so they’re particularly interested in sustainable policies. They want to know the plan for the next 5-10 years, and what that’s going to mean for them investing in their own properties, in their education, so that they can see a time when they can buy a house, have a good job, settle down and grow old healthily.”
She’s also sceptical of the idea that the young are particularly disillusioned with mainstream politics. “Politics has become something of a dirty word, but I think they’re beginning to see through that. Research came out at the weekend saying the UKIP leader is the least popular leader with the student vote.”
UKIP enjoyed unprecedented success in Swansea at the most recent European elections, coming in at only 0.6 percentage points behind Labour. Lane is certainly conscious of the threat: “The trouble with Farage is that he’s polarising people, and the message that he’s putting across is actually quite scary.” It’s an issue she meets with relative regularity on the doorstep.”When I’m canvassing, they turn around and go ‘my chums down the golf club are going to vote UKIP’, you say ‘why’s that?’, and they say ‘well, because of the immigration problem’.”
But, Lane is suspicious of the foundations of pro-UKIP sentiment. It’s a phenomenon she sees as media-driven, rather than founded in direct experience — at least in Swansea West. “I have to say, I don’t quite see where the immigration problem is in Swansea West. I think in the rest of the UK, people may have some more concerns. But I think that comment, here, is very much newspaper led. There’s no original thought there.”
That’s not to say, though, that Lane thinks Swansea West is without its own challenges. “The reality is that people still feel that there is a strain on their pockets — and I am one of those. But fuels prices have come down, we’ve prevented another fuel duty rise, there are more people in work than since the late 90s. Things are improving, and obviously that has a direct impact on an area like Swansea West”.
Lane’s constituency covers the more affluent side of a city which she sees as “a city of two halves: East and West”. Within her constituency, there is a further important divide — if divide is indeed the right word.”We have the fantastic university which is growing more and more, and then you have a lot of middle income, ordinary people. When you drive down the street, looking at a lot of detached houses with two cars on the drive, 2.4 children, they’re actually the ones that have been feeling the squeeze.”
Although these two populations — students and families — have quite distinctive concerns, Lane does not see them as strictly divided. “The students are very integrated. They all live in different wards, from the student areas to the semi-rural areas. Many actually want to get involved in the local area. You find students that have fought an election to become city councillors themselves, which I think is amazing. They’re very forward thinking.”
Student integration isn’t just for the short term, either. “An awful lot of Swansea university students stay in the city, and I find that absolutely fascinating. For example, my Conservative Association chairman was a Swansea University student. He came, and he stayed. Seven years later, he’s still here.” Retaining residents is a priority for Lane. “We have a bit of a brain drain problem here. It’s really quite crucial that we ensure people don’t feel like they have to commute to Cardiff or London to get a better job.”
This aim ties in with broader development goals for the city.”I think the unique issue here is making sure that the economy is actually working for Swansea, ensuring that the change in make-up of jobs from industry to professional service sector continues to grow. I was talking to another one of my constituents who needed a suit, went to the local department store, and was told she’d have to go to Cardiff to get a suit — they didn’t stock them here. Although that sounds like a trivial point, the reality is that Swansea has everything, but on a small scale. If we’re going to keep the students, keep the people who are thinking about growing old here, we’ll have to offer them what they need right from when they’re young.”
Responsibility for many core government functions is shared between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. The Welsh government is Labour-run, and Lane is predictably critical of its recent performance. Integrated with Lane’s criticism of how central funding has been spent, is the observation that the political system in Wales is poorly understood.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand what the difference is between the national government and the Welsh government. When it comes to the big national issues, a lot of Welsh people don’t know that the NHS in Wales is, for example, a devolved power. When you get the queues outside the hospitals, it’s the UK MPs who get it in the neck. But though they’re part of the decision on funding amounts, it’s up to the Welsh Labour-run Government how it’s spent.”
Lane senses little appetite for further devolution in Wales, though. “I think the Welsh people are a very proud population, but they’re also very comfortable in their own skin. I mean that in the sense that they aren’t looking to change the world like Alex Salmond, and I think they are very happy that they get a fairly good share of the income from the national government.”
The referendum didn’t do much for the Welsh nationalist cause, according to Lane — even before the votes were counted. “The referendum created a bit of a bubble, and it was the sort of thing that Plaid Cymru could have made a lot of, but they really didn’t. It’s something that people have been watching with a wry smile on their face.”
“I think one really good thing about the referendum is that it confirmed the feeling that we’re better together. Yes we should keep a separate rugby team — but when it comes to working out how the country’s resources should be shared, we all need to be part of the conversation.”