Wales: Labour MPs hope voters focus on local issues

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Indy Politics

The excitement was palpable last Thursday as thirty-odd Cardiffians scuttled out of the twilight drizzle into the Chapter Art Centre, the city's stunning revamped cultural edifice. It was the night of the final leaders' debate, but these political wonks had eschewed the televised debate for a final dose of Welsh local democracy.

The issues that arose – "garden-grabbing" councillors, the Seven Barrage, bus routes and badger culls – are a far cry from the global financial crisis, but Cardiff South and Penarth's 23-year incumbent MP, Labour's Alun Michael, has wisely pegged his hopes of re-election on forensic knowledge of such minutiae. After 13 years, Welsh disillusion with the national Labour party is high and has become an albatross about its candidates' necks – they must campaign on their effectiveness as a local MP to survive.

Mr Michael, former First Secretary for Wales, also faces an unusually strong challenge in this former "safe" seat, as his reputation has been tarnished by the expenses scandal. He repaid over £19,000 of mortgage interest – the ninth most by any MP – and acknowledges that public anger could scythe through his vote.

Nevertheless, it is hard to see Labour losing Cardiff South and Penarth, or their near-hegemony of Welsh seats. In 2005 Labour won 29 seats with 42.7 per cent of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats came in second with four (18.4 per cent) and the Conservatives tied last with nationalists Plaid Cymru on three (21.4 per cent and 12.6 per cent respectively).

Mr Michael's notional majority sits at a robust, yet reduced, 9,237 votes, and would require an unrealistic 12.5 per cent swing to be captured by the Tories.

The Tory candidate, Simon Hoare, maintains he is in with a fighting chance. He identifies as a pragmatic, Welsh-oriented conservative – a painting of his hero, Disraeli, hangs in his living room in Butetown – and emphasises his local roots to offset his long-term residency in Oxford.

Additionally, in contrast to the universally maligned Gordon Brown, his fresh-faced leader, David Cameron, is seen as an electoral asset.

However, the prospect of a Hoare victory and Conservative outright majority became ever-less likely after the Liberal Democrat revival.

A few weeks ago you could get 40/1 odds on the Liberal Democrats winning Cardiff South and Penarth. Cautious bookmakers have since slashed this to 7/1.

In Cardiff Bay's Splott, birthplace of Shirley Bassey, cherub-faced 26-year-old candidate Dominic Hannigan explained the surge in enthusiasm for his party that "Cleggmania" had precipitated: "The game has changed in the past two weeks. It's a wide open election now.

"Support is coming from old Labour working-class wards – people are fed up with them in Government."

Dean Thomas, 23, a first-time voter, said: "It's all about the debates for me; otherwise I probably wouldn't have bothered voting. Clegg was the most honest one, with real values. Cameron is exactly like Blair, and I don't like Gordon Brown."

Not all are taken by Mr Clegg's meteoric rise; his party's swing vote remains soft and likely to fade before May 6.

After a brief post-debate "Cleggmania" bounce that saw them vault the Tories, recent Welsh polling shows the Liberal Democrats have dropped back to third place with 21 per cent.

The Conservatives remained static at 23.5 per cent, with Labour clearly in the lead at 37.5 per cent.

But the situation is bleak for Labour in ultra-marginal Cardiff North, where declining Labour turnout since 1997 has reduced MP Julie Morgan's notional majority to just over 1,000 votes – a tantalising 1.3 per cent swing.

It is natural Tory territory, and the renascent Conservatives have picked one of their most experienced prospective candidates to unseat her: Jonathan Evans, former leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament as MEP for Wales.

He is also notable for being one of the few Tories in favour of proportional representation in a party hostile to the idea of electoral reform. No doubt he will become a valuable asset should his party find themselves mired in a hung parliament, needing to reach out to Liberal Democrat "kingmakers".

In 2005, Ms Morgan was saved by her independence. Her outspoken opposition to the Iraq war was credited with limiting the considerable swing to the Tories and Liberal Democrats, but she acknowledges that this year the unpopularity of her national party may be terminal to her wafer-thin majority.

She said most constituents are very responsive to her personally, but many say: "We want to vote for you, but not for Brown!"

"We're all very realistic," she said. "We know what the swing is."

After Cardiff North, the most vulnerable Labour constituency is the neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan, an exceptionally rich area and natural Tory seat. The opposition targeted eight Welsh seats, but are unlikely to get more than three or four.

In the north, the Conservatives face a shortfall of only 1,070 votes in Aberconwy. In the west, the Labour majority in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire is an equally precarious 2,043. All three will return to the Tory fold with sub-2.5 per cent swings.

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, are likely to hold on to their three seats, but gain none of their targets. The small party appears to have failed to persuade the electorate that their tiny representation in Westminster could be an asset to the country in the event of a hung parliament.