Craig Williams is the Conservative candidate for Cardiff North, a seat that was held by his party from its creation in 1974 to 1997 and again from 2010 to 2015. Jonathan Evans, the MP from 2010 to 2015, announced he would not stand again in January 2013, and Williams was selected as his replacement two months later. We chatted to Williams about his constituency, campaigning tactics, and why he’s happy to talk about potholes for a Westminster election.
50for15 What would you say are the big issues for people who live in Cardiff North?
CW It’s the NHS, then the economy. Then there are a couple of local issues, too: you’ve got over-development in greenfields at the top of the constituency, and the provision of library services in the bottom of the constituency, although they overlap a bit.
The NHS is an interesting one in Wales because of devolution: it’s nothing to do with the Westminster government. That said, there are funding implications in the sense that because the NHS budget was protected in England, that was transferred through the block grant and topped up indeed by the Barnett formula.
But the only place in the UK where the NHS has been cut is in Wales, and that’s backed up by audit office reports as well as our political propaganda.
50for15 You mentioned the Barnett formula. What can be done to improve the funding that goes to Wales?
CW George Osborne came to the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales, last week and announced he would implement Fair Funding for Wales. And Gerry Holtham did a report about eight years ago now about Fair Funding – he’s a very well respected economist. We’ve adopted his model, which would see £116 per head for every £100 per head in England, and that would implement fair funding.
But if you look at the £8 billion that was announced for the NHS in England over the next five years, that would equate to another £400 million for Wales, and what people have been arguing about is £325, so they’ve already got it coming through the Barnett formula.
But on top of that again, if we’re in power, Wales gets Fair Funding.
50for15 What’s the relationship between you and your campaign on the one hand and Conservative Campaign HQ on the other?
CW The national campaign and the local campaign are hugely dovetailed. You’ll see key messaging coming out, we localise it, and it goes out locally. It’s the best organised campaign I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been involved in two general elections, two Assembly elections, three locals. This is the best organised campaign I’ve ever seen from the Conservative Party.
50for15 In what way is it the best organised campaign you’ve seen?
CW It’s the best dovetailed, best resourced, most organised, most disciplined in terms of our messaging, most organised in terms of getting support from our key speakers.
50for15 How much freedom from central office do you have as a candidate?
CW Massive. You’ve got the national campaign and we’re encouraged – and I like this aspect of the campaign – to develop our own local plan for the community.
I’ve been on the city council for eight years, so I’ve got an understanding of the seat, a vision, a plan for the seat. And we’ve very much set that out on the literature I’ve given you, there’s a very local plan in there. It talks about the Cardiff City Deal, which ties in nationally with what we’re doing in the UK, but also it talks about libraries and the NHS, even though it’s devolved.
And it talks about other issues, because there’s no point a politician turning up on your door and saying, “These are my six issues and I’m going to tell you about them.” It’s the wrong way round. It’s about turning up on the door and saying, “What are your six issues? And this is how our plan integrates into that.”
50for15 How much are voters motivated by local or Welsh concerns in contrast to national issues?
CW It’s a very interesting question, and if I knew the answer, I’d write my leaflets accordingly! It’s why the leaflets cover all of that.
I think the local issues are incredibly important because it shows you’re connected, you’re engaged, and you’re tackling what matters to them. But equally the national narrative is important, in terms of the long-term economic plan – which I’m sure you’ve heard in every seat – and providing a stable economy, because unless the economy’s right, we can’t afford any of these public services.
So it’s taking the local issues and making sure they relate to the national ones, that’s the trick.
50for15 How widespread is the perception that Wales gets a rough deal?
CW We’re the fasting growing part of the United Kingdom, but we start from a very low base. We’ve got some of the poorest communities in this country: Wales, that is, not the UK. There is a massive worry about Wales getting a rough deal, but we’ve got to remember that most of the policy decisions sit with the Welsh government and we’ve had thirteen consistent years of Labour rule in Wales, and when you look at some of their key areas like the Valleys, what have they done for them?
And I think people very much relate to that. And they haven’t forgotten pre-2010 and who left the country very heavily exposed. And they can see the kind of investment that’s gone on in the past five years. If you look at the broadband in the city, super-fast broadband through DCMS [Department for Culture, Media, and Sport] if you look at our railways, the main-line and the Valleys and city lines, the investment we’ve announced over the last government is the biggest investment we’ve had in Wales since Victorian times. And that doesn’t go missed by people.
50for15 At the last election, Cardiff North was the most marginal seat in Wales – why would you say this constituency is so marginal?
CW It’s marginal because of the previous candidate, Julie Morgan, who was fighting it since 1987, and won it in 1997 at the height [of Labour’s popularity]. If you look at this constituency, we lose it on our really low [ebbs].
Julie, I’ve said this publically and I’ve said this to Julie, was a great constituency member. She soaked up a lot of votes from everyone, including us [Conservative voters].
But this is the first time since then she’s not standing, and I think that personality vote will play a massive role. We’ve set ourselves up as taking on the mantle in terms of being a good constituency member.
And not just that: the argument we had about devolution as a party – we opposed it – and I think we paid an electoral price for that. But now it’s there, it’s not going anywhere, we’re working with it: we’re the official opposition now.
You compare us, the Welsh Conservatives, to the Scottish Conservatives, and there’s no comparison.
I think it’s a combination of losing this seat at a peak [of Labour popularity], a good Labour constituency member, and a very hard fought fight, internally in the Conservative Party, about devolution. So you put those three factors together and you get a very weak Conservative movement over the last decade, but you couldn’t compare us today to what we were a decade ago.
50for15 The incumbency factor is clearly very useful for anyone running for Parliament. How do you build a similar effect in your position?
CW I’ve been working with Jonathan for about three years in this role as a candidate, so we’ve been putting ourselves out together as a team and working on local issues. But it’s not just that: I’ve got the incumbency factor as a city councillor. I chair the economy and culture committee, which gives me a city-wide profile, and it’s building on that in terms of: ‘I am delivering for you already on these issues, and I’ve got quite a strong record locally on those issues.’
Libraries are a great example of where I put the motion down in the council, helped lead the campaign with local residents and councillors, and we won. That is a great campaign I can reference, as well as the economic development side as chair of the economy committee.
So for me it’s very easy to take as much benefit as I can from incumbency, while not actually being the incumbent, though of course it’s not the same as incumbency.
50for15 We’ve seen a lot of your posters up in the constituency. How does that work from a logistical point of view?
CW Posters are an absolute nightmare, if I’m frank with you. Logistically it’s a pain just getting teams out putting posters up. They’re important, but they’re not the top priority for our campaign.
They’re more important for morale than they are for campaigning, although they do play a role: they show you’re strong in areas.
Logistically we’ve got two teams that go out once a week sorting out any problems – we’re in Wales, we’ve got a fair old amount of wind, you get some taken down – as well as putting more up. I’ve never been in a campaign yet where we’ve actually put up posters in all of our poster sites. It’s just a continuous battle of repairing them and putting more up.
50for15 So what tactics are you focusing on at this stage? Door-knocking, leafleting?
CW We’re focusing very much on door-knocking. Though we do leafleting as well – it’s a mixture of everything.
I once asked William Hague in a briefing session, “What should we prioritise?” And he said, “All of the above.” Very helpfully… But he’s right. You door-knock, and you get so many people who are out.
Even the most conservative estimate you’ll get off me? We won’t door-knock more than 20% of the constituency, and trust me, that’s an enormous effort. We’ll probably reach that this time, but that is back-breaking. And you mustn’t neglect leaflets, because you’ve got to communicate with the other 80%.
50for15 Do you find lots people that are disengaged with politics on the doorstep?
CW Of course. You can see it in turnouts, you can’t hide that. There are people who get frustrated with the political system at the moment. The coalition was good to a point, but equally we lost the last general election, so we couldn’t implement everything in our manifesto. Conservatives are frustrated by that, that’s why Conservatives are going all out for a majority.
People are apathetic out there but equally there’s as many coming back to us, saying, “We can see what you’re trying to do, but this time get over the line and get a majority.”
50for15 What do you do when you come across apathetic voters?
CW I normally talk about the issues that matter to them, and then I explain to them how politics affect them. Because politics affects everything, it’s very easy to point it out. And I very it really helps as a local councillor.
I find it hilarious, actually: when I stood for the Assembly, everyone wanted to talk to me about immigration, when I stood for the council, everyone wanted to talk about the economy, now standing as an MP, everyone wants to talk about potholes.
I find myself slightly frustrated that no one ever wants to talk about what you’re standing about. But that’s fine really, I don’t mind that at all. No one wants a politician that stands on the door and goes, “Well actually that’s not the responsibility of X.”
When Mrs Jones down the street has been annoyed that that street light has been out for three weeks, my reply to that is, “I’m going to fix it.”
You get the occasional person who says, “Why on earth are you banging on about potholes in your leaflet, that’s nothing to do with Westminster?”
Well, it’s because it matters to the resident of Cardiff North.