If it’s Merthyr, is it still Labour?

Angela Elniff-Larsen explains why the Welsh constituency that is fount of Labour representation, is no longer safe for the party

Interestingly enough when I started to look at Merthyr politics following the general election I found a much more colourful and interesting pattern of voting in my home town than I suspected would be the case. Along with other Valleys constituencies Merthyr tends to get ignored by political commentators and pundits. It is assumed it just votes Labour and will never change. Maybe they need to look a little more closely and realise that Merthyr is no longer the political push over that it is assumed to be.

Merthyr has always had a radical side. From uprisings in the 19th Century, to electing the first Labour MP, to supporting an Independent Labour candidate, against the might of the UK Labour machine. Even in local elections Labour has not been a safe bet. Merthyr Council was controlled by Plaid during the 1970s, and saw the political path of the then Hoover worker Dafydd Wigley begin. At present the council is run by a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Independents.

In the general Election there was a swing of 17 per cent against Labour’s Dai Havard to the Liberal Democrats. His majority is now just 4,056, the smallest majority for a Labour MP representing the seat since 1945. It is less than his colleague Huw Lewis AM who also experienced a greater 23.5 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats in the 2007 Assembly election. In 1999 and 2003 Lewis’s main opposition was Plaid Cymru. However, their star has waned considerably in recent years with the party now falling behind their 1997 general election result. This is due to the lack of a good local candidate and the loss of members and activists.

Merthyr’s constituency boundaries have been redrawn several times. It has been known as Merthyr, Merthyr Tydfil and more recently Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. When the seat was first created in 1832 it was called Merthyr Tydfil. It’s first MP was Dowlais Ironworks owner John Josiah Guest, a Liberal and Free Trade MP.

Following boundary changes in 1868 the seat was given two members. Kier Hardie was elected as Labour’s first MP for the constituency in 1900, serving until 1910.   In the 1918 general election the constituency reverted to being called Merthyr and was held by a Coalition Liberal. Labour was back in 1922 with Richard Wallhead elected as an Independent Labour MP. Labour’s SO Davies won the seat in a by election in 1934 and held it until his death in 1972. He was succeeded by Ted Rowlands who held the seat until he retired in 2001. In 1983 the seat was recast into its present boundaries of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.

For the first National Assembly elections Huw Lewis won the seat for the Labour and Co-operative Party on the same boundaries. Since the present seat was created in 1983 the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have come second to Labour in five out of the seven elections. The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru came second in 1987 and 2001 respectively.

In the last local council election in May 2008 Labour lost control to a coalition of  Independents and Liberal Democrats. The current make up of the council is:

  • 13 Independent Group Councillors
  • 10 Labour Councillors
  • 4 Liberal Democrats Councillors
  • 3 Merthyr Independents Councillors
  • 2 UKIP Councillors
  • 1 Independent (doesn’t sit with either Independent Group)

The Independent groups are of varying hues but are combined in their opposition to Labour. Maybe people would be taken back to see UKIP taking Council Seats here too.

In the 1972 by election triggered by the death of S. O. Davies, Labour’s Ted Rowlands won with 15,562 votes, a majority of 3,710 over Plaid Cymru’s Emrys Roberts. However, Ted Rowlands had increased his majority to more than 30,000 by his retirement in 2001, proving the value of being a good constituency MP. He also had the support of a partner who worked equally hard and was very visible. In the 1997 General Election that Labour won with a landslide Ted Rowlands secured 30,012 votes a majority of 27,086 over the Lib Dems on a turnout of 69.3 per cent.

In the 2001 election Dai Havard was elected with a majority by 10,500 votes ahead of Plaid Cymru, a substantial fall but still a healthy lead.

If we look back to the 1934 bye election when SO Davies was first elected he secured 18,645 votes a majority of 8,269 over second place J.V. Evans of the Liberal Party. The turnout was 81 per cent. In the same 1934 by election Wal Hannington of the Communist Party polled 3,409 votes. S.O.’s majorities were substantial between 16,000 and 22,000 in his time as an MP. Even when he stood as an Independent standing against the full force of the Labour machine he had a respectable 7,400 majority.

S. O. Davies was suspected of being considerably older than he claimed. There is no birth for a Stephen Owen Davies registered in the last quarter of 1886, although there is one in the last quarter of 1879. Throughout his parliamentary career, he was a great individualist, ever ready on occasion to attack the enactments of a Labour government. Consequently, on three separate occasions between 1953 and 1961 he was deprived of the Labour whip on issues concerning American bases in Britain, rearmament in West Germany, and opposition to the Polaris submarine programme.

S.O., as he was affectionately known, was also a fervent advocate of self-government for Wales, or Home Rule for Wales as it was known in those day — totally at variance with the official party line on the issue. He actively supported the tenacious Parliament for Wales agitation of the period 1950-56. In 1955, acting totally on his own initiative, and without even consulting his colleagues within the Parliament for Wales campaign, he introduced a Government of Wales bill in the House of Commons. Predictably, the measure floundered.

Merthyr’s first MP was John Josiah Guest who first sat as a member of Parliament for Honiton from 1825 until 1831. It was largely through his influence that the new parliamentary constituency of the Merthyr Borough (including Aberdare and Vaynor) was created. He was returned unopposed in 1832 (as a Liberal and Free Trader) as the first MP for the Merthyr borough, and kept his seat until his death in 1852.

In 1868 Henry Richard was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for the Merthyr boroughs, becoming known as one of the foremost nonconformists in the House of Commons. Here he was a leading member of the party which advocated the removal of Nonconformist grievances and the disestablishment of the church in Wales.

In the 1918 election, the first since the Representation of the People Act which gave all adult men and some women the vote, Sir Edgar Rees Jones was elected as a Coalition Liberal, so named because David Lloyd George formed a Coalition with Conservatives under Andrew Bonar Law after no party won an outright majority.

Perhaps the most well known of Merthyr’s MP’s is Keir Hardie. In 1900, he became Labour’s first member of the House of Commons, elected as the junior MP for the dual-member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, which he would represent for the remainder of his life.

Richard C. Wallhead was MP for Merthyr from 1922 to until his death in 1934 (before SO Davies) he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and later became a journalist and lecturer. He was a committed opponent of the first World War and was detained in 1917 under the Defence of the Realm Act. 

Like current MP Dai Havard, Ted Rowlands fought against Plaid Cymru, Conservatives, Liberal and Lib Dem candidates. In contrast S.O. Davies fought almost solely against Conservatives opponents. Indeed, apart from 1950 when an Independent Welsh Nationalist candidate stood, from 1945 until 1964 there were only Labour and Conservative candidates standing for election in the Merthyr seat.

Where we see Labour majority increase, where we see Plaid push in and where we see the Lib Dems scoring there is a common thread. It’s the personality and attention to the constituency needs. Always accessible, S.O. Davies was a common sight in Merthyr. Ted Rowlands was the same, constantly involved with events in the towns, especially the with the schools and young people. His wife Janice was almost Merthyr’s second MP and well loved.

The campaign fought by the young Lib Dem candidate in the recent general election campaign, Amy Kitcher was personal and in your face. She was feisty and knew the patch. She was known for her campaigns and her council work in Merthyr and her massive dent in the Labour majority bore witness to this. As she puts it on her website:

“Amy Kitcher grew up in Merthyr Tydfil and lives in Pentrebach with her family. Amy has worked in the Welsh Assembly and now works for a national domestic abuse charity. Amy’s passion for getting things done is what sets her apart from her opponents. She spoke out against the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine and more recently has been challenging council leaders to cut out waste, like free booze and food for councillors. As the youngest woman councillor ever elected in Merthyr Tydfil, Amy has spent that last two years fighting tirelessly for local residents in the council chamber. An active member of the community, Amy is a school governor and recently ran the Cardiff Half Marathon to raise money for Ty Hafan Children’s Hospice.”

Is Labour in danger in Merthyr today? Yes it is and Huw Lewis has voiced his concerns about where Labour in Wales needs to go to regain ground. Merthyr is a barometer to watch for the way the political winds are blowing in the Valleys. There are major lessons for all political parties to note from its history. Hard work and a personal presence is important. Do not take any votes for granted.

Angela Elniff-Larsen is Director of Angles Consulting.

2 thoughts on “If it’s Merthyr, is it still Labour?

  1. Very comprehensive; it would be picking to say that part of a sentence is missing in the 5th paragraph. James KEIR Hardie, and admittedly, head of finance is a worker of sorts.

  2. P.S. I was born in 1951 so the S. O. Davies – Tal Lloyd election was my first vote, and it went to Chris Rees. I used to go to Tal Lloyd’s house to play with his son Kerry who was in class with me in Penydarren Juniors; also, my father swore that it was Tal Lloyd who got us a council house, Plaid Cymru got rid of this method when they brought in a points system which they believed was fairer.

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