Cllr Matthew Evans is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Newport Council.
Three by-elections, a suspension, and a defection. Not the title of a new Hugh Grant film, but politics in the city of Newport over the past 12 months. It’s been eventful to say the least.
Let’s start with the by-elections. The first had been delayed for a year due to Covid and landed on the same day as the Senedd election. The Victoria ward, known as Maindee to the locals, is generally a safe Labour seat although the Lib Dems and Plaid once held it for a term a piece. The seat was held on to by Labour but Conservatives came a respectable third, beating the Greens into fourth place and halting the ‘Green Surge’!
The second by-election was in the Conservative-held ward of Graig, a leafy semi-rural area of Newport. Long serving Councillor, Margaret Cornelius, stood down for health reasons, putting the community first when she knew she could no longer fulfil the role to the best of her abilities. Our new candidate was John Jones, a local businessman and seasoned campaigner. Thanks to a strong campaign focusing on local issues and the M4 Relief Road we managed to increase our vote to over 50 per cent: the first time we had achieved this figure since 2008 when we took control of the Newport City Council. Labour threw the book at the seat, and If Keir Starmer was going anywhere near Downing Street, they should have won.
Our third by-election occurred in December following the resignation of another Labour councillor in Victoria Ward. We put up a good fight for the seat, focusing on the extra investment by central Conservative Government into local schemes. But National events conspired against us and it was difficult to get the Conservative vote out: this despite public dissatisfaction with the Council and the Welsh Labour Government; old habits die hard.
A disappointment came with the three month suspension handed to one of our councillors by Newport City Council on the grounds of breaking the code of conduct. I won’t bore you with the details, but we accepted the suspension, understood why such action had to be taken, and moved on.
At the end of the year, I was delighted to welcome Graham Berry to the group. A retired businessman and Labour councillor, Graham was unhappy with the Labour Party both nationally and locally. His defection takes us up to 13 seats with Labour 30, the Lib Dems two, and the Independents five.
Back to the Senedd elections and Labour again took both seats in Newport East and West.
We may not have cracked Labour’s last ‘Red Wall’ in South Wales but we have established ourselves as the only opposition party that can beat Labour. However, voters are still apathetic towards devolved elections and, although understandable, it is ultimately self-defeating. Since the pandemic, Welsh devolution has been under intense scrutiny, yet turnout increased by only one per cent overall. The good news for Newport Conservatives is we turned in a great result across the two seats. Astonishingly, for the first time at either a Parliamentary or Senedd level, Newport East is more winnable than Newport West: a first since I became a councillor in 1999 and stood for the Newport East seat in 2003.
Looking ahead, the council elections in May will be tough, but I believe our best chance to break through will be in areas of Newport currently neglected by Labour and taken for granted. We are now the party of working people who have been badly let down by decades of Labour dominance in communities right across South Wales. I sincerely hope Newport can release itself from the shackles of socialism which still hold back its potential.