The beautiful part of Wales that could change its mind for the first time in decades

Monmouthshire never looked like a swing seat before - but it could be one this time
-Credit: (Image: Media Wales, Matthew Horwood & Nathan Roach)

"It just feels like we’re not actually represented, we’re just like an outlier,” 22-year-old Nadia says. “We’re kind of being forced to be English when we’re not."

We're standing in a blissfully shady spot in a scorching-hot park - in a town that could be in line to do something it hasn't done for more than 20 years. Her sister Jade adds: "It’s like Wales has forgotten us and England don’t really care either."

Monmouthshire is a really interesting place. Arguably Wales’ Tory heartland but right on the border with England, it hasn't voted for a Labour MP since 2001, some 23 years ago, despite the party dominating the vast majority of south Wales, including most of its neighbours. But Monmouthshire, if predictions are to be believed, might soon have a Labour MP. Voters here will not decide whether Labour gain power - but they will determine just how devastating July 4 will be for the Tories.

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Sara and her two daughters pose for a photo
Not all young people are engaged in politics but Sara's two daughters are -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales

If Monmouthshire goes red, it will have been a very bad night indeed for the Tories, with dozens of other formerly safe seats turning. People in this constituency are generally older, whiter, earning more and more likely to own a home than the rest of Wales (according to Electoral Calculus).

Demographically it is almost the tailor-made Tory safe seat. And yet in every prediction, from every poll, Monmouthshire (replacing the existing Monmouth constituency with some slight boundary changes) is a red splotch on the map - and many of these polls also predict a record low return for the Conservatives overall.

In fact the sitting MP - the secretary of state for Wales, no less - is talking about it in very real terms. "[The polls] don’t always get it right," David TC Davies told the Sun. "They never get it 100% right but they’re clearly pointing at a large Labour majority."

He went on to say he didn’t sense any great enthusiasm for Labour either - but added: "I think, over the last five years, people have been battered by the various challenges that have hit this country… there's no great optimism out there… I feel for everyone and I think we're gonna get it in the neck, all of us, as a result of that."

Taking to the streets of the constituency's biggest town, Abergavenny, on a blisteringly hot day the week before the election, we heard some mixed views on Mr Davies. Literally the first person we speak to after getting off the train refers to him as "a classic example of the triumph of mediocrity."

But later on we get more of a balanced view, and most people have positive things to say. Eddie, an 87-year-old lifelong Labour supporter, says Mr Davies "hasn't done any harm" and is "alright as a person," - and Julian Edwards, a 54-year-old who operates a jacket potato van in town (and himself ran as an independent candidate for the town council previously) says: "I’ve heard from David Davies more than anybody else [during the campaign]."

Julian Edwards leans on the counter at his jacket potato stall
Welsh 'Spudman' Julian Edwards says he's always had positive interactions with David TC Davies -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales
Eddie poses for a photo, looking towards camera
Eddie has no issue with Mr Davies himself - even if he isn't a fan of his party -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales

In our time in Abergavenny no clear picture emerges of which candidate is making more of an impact on the campaign trail - some have heard from both, some from neither. But Julian says: "He’s turned up here regularly enough. I think he’s straight to the point. He says, he does, he do. It may not be what everybody likes but he doesn’t fluff around the edges... I think he's got a strong character.

"It's love or hate. It's like Marmite, d'you know what I mean? You either love him or you hate him. Or you're on the fence with him, type of thing."

Julian is keen to talk about local issues (among them the closure of both public toilets and the Tudor Street day centre for learning-disabled adults) but most people we speak to about their choice on July 4 look at the big picture. Abergavenny is not the whole of Monmouthshire, and lunchtime on a Wednesday doesn’t bring you the most representative sample of the population, but overwhelmingly people brought up national issues when talking about how they'd cast their vote.

Peter, 37, and his mum Linda, in her 60s, say they've had a few leaflets through the door but no knocks from any candidate - but Linda says: "A lot of my issues are with the care system and NHS. My husband’s in a care home in Abergavenny and they’re lovely there, but there are a lot of places where they don’t have enough staff or enough money. I worry about things like that. I blame this lot that’s in now, the Tories."

Peter adds: "They’ve had a long time to get stuff sorted, it just seems to be inner squabbling for many years, they don’t get anything done."

Peter and his mum. Peter's mum is wearing a multicoloured striped shirt and Peter is wearing a Levi's t-shirt
Peter and his mum say they aren't especially engaged in politics but they know the issues that matter to them -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales

This, of course, is the great question of living somewhere with a devolved parliament like the Senedd - where do you lay the blame, and who do you look to for a fix? Several people mention the NHS and the environment when speaking to us, and funding for these comes from Westminster but is distributed as Cardiff Bay sees fit. For the latest analysis of the biggest stories, sign up to the Wales Matters newsletter here.

Another theme is a general lack of enthusiasm for the major parties' leadership. Veronica, 74, tells us: "I think some of the leaders are not leading very well… the Conservatives I’ve found absolutely demoralising.

"They’ve brought it to, to me, a situation whereby you question the standing of any politician, and I find that really sad... I think people are brighter than the pundits think. Some people are taken by the loudmouths, the self-opinionated - I personally would sooner see people cared for and looked after"

Veronica poses for a photo. She is wearing sunglasses and a striped shirt
Veronica, 74, has found the Conservatives "demoralising" -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales

To get a better sense of how the message is being received on the doorstep, we've been trying to organise to go canvassing with Mr Davies to see how the public are responding to him, but have been unable to secure either this or an interview. Labour organised for us to join them campaigning in town but due to our own scheduling clash, this turned into an interview with their candidate Catherine Fookes, a former head of the Women's Equality Network Wales and a county councillor.

“I would say Monmouthshire residents are some of the kindest and most open-minded I’ve ever met," she says. "It’s a county that’s very rural that I think has not been served well by the current MP and the Conservatives at Westminster, so I think it’s a county now crying out for change.”

She says the campaign has been “really positive” so far but, with nine days remaining at the time of the interview, adds: "It's definitely not in the bag.” Characteristically for a prospective Labour MP at this election, she is ruthlessly on-message - and a familiar word comes up almost immediately: “The main thing is people want change."

On the doorstep, she says she hears people bring up the Conservatives’ scandals - the emerging stories of alleged bets being placed on the election (in which a Labour MS has also allegedly been implicated), Rishi Sunak leaving part-way through D-Day commemorations and the Partygate saga. But the “number one issue,” she says, is the cost of living.

Catherine Fookes, Labour candidate for Monmouthshire
Catherine Fookes, Labour candidate for Monmouthshire -Credit:Nathan Roach

This broadly aligns with what people bring up when we ask them - but does it make Monmouthshire a winnable seat for Labour? In trying to make it one, Ms Fookes says there has been a huge level of support from the party itself and from neighbouring MPs joining the campaign.

We point out that Monmouthshire is a crowded field with an independent and candidates from two smaller parties as well as the familiar names - none exactly threatening to win the seat outright, but when you’re looking to overturn a Tory majority every anti-Tory vote will matter. But Ms Fookes sees this as a two-horse race.

"I’m up against the secretary of state for Wales but a lot of people call him the secretary of state against Wales, because he’s constantly bashing Wales… fair play to all the independents and other parties, democracy is what it is and I welcome anybody standing, but the real fight is between me and David."

After being pushed a little further - what have people been saying about David TC Davies on the doorstep? - she adds: “To be honest I don’t really talk as much about David on the doorstep. As much as possible I stay well away from that topic. I just want to put forward my own positive agenda.

"People basically say they want change,” (there’s that word again), "they’re fed up of the same old same old… we’ve had Tory government for 14 years, he’s been in 19 years."

Later, we come back to this - when she says Monmouthshire is a county “crying out for change,” how should it have been better-served by its sitting MP? "I’m just going to talk about it in more general terms, I mean Westminster. I mean the cost-of-living crisis, inflation, the highest hike in mortgages… what I mean is the Westminster parliament and the Conservatives have not served Monmouthshire well."

She says her focus is a "positive campaign," which in recent days has been "on steroids" as activists arrived to back her campaign. Having been the candidate for 18 months she’s had the benefit of a run-up to the election that not all others have, despite not expecting a July election - but she’s also been the face of a future Labour government in Monmouthshire during the furore over the Sustainable Farming Scheme, a plan to allocate large swathes of farmers' land for habitats and tree-planting which was postponed after widespread outrage.

"Farmers obviously were up in arms about it, I must admit," says Ms Fookes. "There’s no running away from that. The thing we’re doing now is we’re listening… the Welsh Government is listening, we have started the roundtables again and we’re going to be working on a scheme that will work for farmers. I feel like farmers are just really pleased that that’s what’s happening, and that’s definitely a positive."

Having advised the UK Government on farming in a previous life, and from a farming family herself, Ms Fookes will In the height of these protests did she fear she’d lose support as a Labour candidate?

The candidates at a hustings - David Davies (Conservative), Ioan Bellin (Plaid Cymru), Ian Chandler (Green Party), Owen Lewis (Independent), William Powell (Liberal Democrat), Catherine Fookes (Labour), June Davies (True and Fair Party)
The candidates at a hustings - David Davies (Conservative), Ioan Bellin (Plaid Cymru), Ian Chandler (Green Party), Owen Lewis (Independent), William Powell (Liberal Democrat), Catherine Fookes (Labour), June Davies (True and Fair Party) -Credit:Copyright Unknown

"Because it’s devolved, not hugely. Not really, no. I thought it was difficult and I did write a letter to Lesley Griffiths which I shared with the farmers locally, saying please can you revisit this because it’s seriously going to impact farmers and we need to listen."

The question of devolution is another interesting one. Labour were criticised earlier in the week for a leaflet promoting Ms Fookes' candidacy that made promises on the NHS, education and the environment - areas for which the Labour Welsh Government has been responsible for 20 years.

David TC Davies said at the time that Labour were trying to "con the people of Wales by claiming they can sort river pollution and cut NHS waiting lists," adding: "It’s appalling that they’re deliberately misleading the public by claiming they can improve the NHS and other devolved areas - when Welsh Labour have failed to do so after 25 years."

But Ms Fookes says she doesn't even accept the premise of a question on the subject: "It would be extraordinary for someone to campaign in a country and not mention the NHS... the Welsh Government and Westminster, if we're lucky enough to be elected, would just work together... I think [people] see what money is going in their pocket and how many problems they've got with the cost of living. That's the number one issue."

“I’ve only had the Labour candidate come round,” says one woman in her 50s who was working in town while we spoke. “I think she’s got a better profile round here this time, lots of people locally know her. Sometimes you feel like you're compromising your local candidate [with] a tactical vote, but actually I think Catherine Fookes is a good local candidate."

As for why the constituency so often leans Conservative: "You can't see the wealth that is here, but it's here. You go out into the countryside and think 'how many big estates are there?' You compare it to the valleys five minutes up the road and it's astonishing.

“It's really depressing for our kids. You look at people that are retired now in their 70s and I wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot of them stick with the Conservatives because they haven't got as much to lose. For the kids coming up, with house prices and the environment... I don't think the Tories have taken it seriously.”

Perhaps the most illustrative conversation we have is with Clive, a 78-year-old lifelong Tory voter now having second thoughts about the party. "The Tories have had 14 years of opportunities," he says. "Just telling us what they’re going to do now - it doesn’t make up for the times they have had years of not doing it. Brexit was the worst thing, leaving the European Union was catastrophic.”

Did he support it at the time? “No chance.” As for why Monmouthshire is more of a potential marginal this time, he has no idea. “Every time I’ve emailed [David TC Davies] he’s always answered, or his office have. He was [our only MP], so we can’t measure him against anything else!

Clive, originally from Anglesey, has lived in Abergavenny for 45 years. He says he has heard “absolutely nothing” from the candidates beside leaflets. Has anything impressed him on a national level? “The fact that Labour have said no to the European Union but it looks as if they’re prepared to make overtures towards a better relationship business-wise.”

Other than that, no: “At the end of the day ,they’ve said what they won’t do as far as tax is concerned… I wasn’t pleased to hear it because I expect there to be pain of some sort - we can’t just get away with the debt that we’ve got as a nation.

We also catch up with Nathan, a 34-year-old on his way to work at a pub. "We’ve had loads of people knock the doors, from several parties," he says. “I work in a pub and a couple of guys from Labour came in doing the knocking, and I had more of an in-depth chat with them. They were really convincing with the policies."

Generally, though, he says people look at the "zoomed-out" national picture - the manifestoes and the national leaders. Paul, a 67-year-old, says he wouldn’t trust any of these leaders “as far as I could kick them.” He adds: "I’ve always taken a keen interest in politics, local and national. But I’m so disillusioned with the whole lot, it’s just a complete and utter shambles. It doesn’t matter what flag they’re flying under. I wouldn’t trust any of them.

Paul poses for a photo. He is wearing sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and a checked shirt
Paul, 67, isn't pleased with either the Labour or Tory leader -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales
34-year-old Nathan said he was most impressed by the Labour doorknockers
34-year-old Nathan said he was most impressed by the Labour doorknockers -Credit:Ben Summer / Media Wales

"They say one thing, do the exact opposite. Starmer, he does so many U-turns - he wants to run with the hares and the hounds all the time… the Conservatives have made such a bloody shambles of it in recent times.

"We just want a bit of honesty from all the politicians. They all say it’s been fully costed then you get the likes of the IFS saying there are huge black holes in how they’re going to fund it.What really annoys me, and it doesn’t matter what political flag they are, is if they can find the money at election time, why can’t they find the money and put all these plans in place during a normal term, rather than bring party politics into it?"

On the issues that'll affect his vote, he says: "There’s so many issues affecting everybody at the moment. The cost of living, unfortunately we’re getting older, my wife’s been poorly and she’s with the NHS. I’ve been involved in the fishing community for donkey’s years and I’ve been fighting for 50 years to get clean rivers and water around our coast."

He adds: "I’ll be honest, I speak as I find… David TC Davies, when I’ve had to deal with him at charity things, fishery things, farming things, I’ve found him to be a very good constituency MP. [Whether that affects the outcome], it all depends how many people contact him to get things done - if they look at the bigger picture, I don’t think it probably will - people are thinking of their back pocket and the cost of living, cost of fuel. I think that will have a bigger impact than whether he sorts out a new footpath."