Alyn & Deeside by-election preview

One by-election on Tuesday 6th February 2018:

Alyn and Deeside

National Assembly for Wales; caused by the death of Labour AM Carl Sargeant at the age of 49. Sargeant had represented Alyn and Deeside in the Assembly since 2003 and had served among the Welsh Ministers since 2007, originally as Chief Whip and latterly as Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children. Sargeant was dismissed from that position on 3 November 2017, following unspecified allegations about his personal conduct in the febrile atmosphere of the 2017 Westminster sexual scandals. Four days later, he was found hanged at his home, and the coroner heard that he was believed to have taken his own life. He leaves behind a wife, a son and a daughter.

We are sure you appreciate the anxiety and distress being caused to our client particularly as he is yet to receive any details of the allegations that have led to the decisions taken to date by the First Minister of Wales, the Labour Party in Wales and the Labour Party head office. There is the potential requirement to interview a number of witnesses of fact and with the Christmas period intervening and the ongoing delay is both prejudicial to the preparation of our clients case but also to his physical and mental wellbeing.
– Letter from Bowden Jones Solicitors to Welsh Labour, 6 November 2017

A difficult subject to write about for the first major by-election of 2018. We heard a lot in late 2017 about #metoo, a viral internet movement which went mainstream to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment. It started with Harvey Weinstein, a high-profile film producer with a host of allegations against him, and spread from there.

Politics, of course, is not immune to sex scandals; indeed, quite the reverse. #metoo has resulted in a large number of scalps in the UK political scene, rivalling that of the Major government. Michael Fallon resigned as defence secretary over his past behaviour, while just before Christmas Damian Green was effectively sacked as First Secretary of State and Theresa May’s deputy over allegations of sexually harassing behaviour and viewing pornography on a House of Commons computer. Junior minister Mark Garnier admitted instructing his parliamentary assistant to buy sex toys for his wife and a constituent, and lost his job at the Department for International Trade in January’s reshuffle. In Holyrood, Mark McDonald resigned as the Scottish Parliament’s childcare minister over inappropriate sexual behaviour. And lest you think that I’m only picking on government ministers, Labour MPs Kelvin Hopkins and Ivan Lewis remain suspended from the party over sexual harassment allegations.

This column is not going to defend anyone who may have sexually harassed someone. But, at the same time, these are serious allegations being made against people in political employment. Those accused have the right to expect a modicum of support and a duty of care from their party at the investigation or disciplinary stage – after all, that’s one of the things unions are for. Clearly, in the Carl Sargeant case, something went badly wrong.

After his death, Sargeant’s family released correspondence relating to Sargeant’s suspension, including the solicitors’ letter quoted at the head of this column. That was written the day before Sargeant took his life, with him facing investigation by the party, and the passages relating to Sargeant’s “anxiety and distress” and “physical and mental wellbeing” look chilling in retrospect. The letter also makes clear that Sargeant did not know the detail of the allegations made against him. We still don’t know that: the Welsh Labour Party investigation into Sargeant wound up after his death on the principle that there’s no point disciplining a dead man.

Instead we have a series of investigations, to report at a later date, into how Sargeant’s sacking was handled by the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones; whether news of the sacking was leaked; and into wider claims of bullying within the Labour-controlled Welsh government. It will be interesting to see what the investigations come up with, but this column suspects that the full consequences from this tragedy have yet to play out.

That’s for the future, and we must now turn to Alyn and Deeside. Even seasoned UK geographers will have trouble placing this constituency on the map, for its name reflects one of the old Welsh district councils which existed from 1974 to 1996. The name refers to two rivers. The Alyn rises in the Clwydian Hills and flows south-east through Mold to reach the Dee north-east of Wrexham. The Deeside part of the name is the core of the constituency and refers to the small towns which were once located on the Dee estuary.

Once, but not any longer. The Dee Estuary west of Chester has extensively silted up over the centuries, as a visit to the so-called “seafront” at Parkgate on the Wirral will testify. To the north-west of Chester the river was diverted during the eighteenth century into an arrow-straight artificial channel, leading to extensive land reclamation (the appropriately-named Sealand community) by a series of polders. That’s caused some interesting boundary issues, mainly related to the fact that the Ordnance Survey, when it originally looked at the area centuries ago, had drawn a rather arbitrary line through the mud and sandbanks which existed then to represent the border between Wales and England. Although the land has changed the line has not, resulting in some very weird electoral boundaries particularly around the Deeside Industrial Park. Despite being on the opposite side of the Dee, the Industrial Park is administratively part of the community of Connah’s Quay and covered – in a pattern which makes no sense whatsoever on the ground – by several Connah’s Quay-based electoral divisions. Closer to Chester, the Welsh-English border famously bisects Chester FC’s Deva Stadium.

It may surprise readers to learn that Connah’s Quay is actually the largest town in Flintshire by population – larger than the county town Mold, larger than Buckley, larger than Holywell. There are reasons for that. Like many of the small towns in Alyn and Deeside, Connah’s Quay is an industrial centre. The gas-fired Connah’s Quay power station dominates the Deeside area, overshadowing even the impressive Flintshire Bridge. A cable-stayed structure, the Flintshire Bridge may be a bit of a bridge to nowhere but does carry the A548 North Wales Coast road, connecting Connah’s Quay with the Deeside Industrial Park. The industrial park is one of the major employment centres of North Wales, taking in among other things the large Shotton steelworks, a major Toyota engine plant and the head office of Iceland supermarkets. It’s no surprise that three of the four Connah’s Quay divisions, two of the three Shotton divisions and Queensferry make the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS “lower supervisory, technical” employment classification.

But that pales in comparison with one of the most high-profile factories in the UK. The small village of Broughton is home to a large aerospace factory, established during the Second World War for bomber production and later home to such favourite aircraft of quiz league question-setters as the De Havilland Comet and Mosquito. Broughton’s aircraft factory is now owned by Airbus, and assembles the wings for all Airbus aircraft including the flagship “superjumbo” A380. Final assembly of the A380 takes place in Toulouse, to which Broughton’s wings are transported by sea. The Airbus factory employs 6,500 people, so it is highly important to the constituency’s economy, and a recent order from Emirates Airlines for more A380s could help to secure the factory for several years to come. Even the local football club – sadly relegated from the Welsh Premier League last year – is called Airbus UK Broughton. Both Broughton divisions are in the top 100 wards in England and Wales for the ONS “lower supervisory, technical” employment classification, with Broughton South coming in at number 11.

Lying inland is the constituency’s other major town, Buckley. This was another town created by the industrial revolution, with its heavy clay soil and accessible coal measures leading to pottery, mining and brickworking industries. The town’s accent still has influences from the immigrants from Liverpool and Ireland who came here in the nineteenth century to staff those industries. Today the main export from Buckley is cement from a large and notably ugly cement works.

Not exactly tourist central. For many visitors to north Wales, Alyn and Deeside is somewhere you pass through to get to somewhere more exciting, like Snowdonia, the beach resorts on the north coast or even the Irish ferry from Holyhead. Most of those visitors pass along the A494 road, which runs from the end of the motorway in England to meet the A55 – the main road through North Wales – north of Buckley. It’s a dream to drive from the English border all the way to the Dee crossing at Queensferry, which is very clearly the point where the improvement money ran out – the westbound carriageway loses a lane and makes a handbrake turn to the right to squeeze onto the existing Dee bridge. (For those who ignore the warnings and go straight on, I hope your vehicle likes salt water.) Between the Dee and the A55 the road runs along Aston Hill, a congested two-lane dual carriageway with poor sightlines, steep gradients, a 50mph speed limit and a bad accident record. A rebuilding plan for this section was thrown out by the Welsh Government in 2008 due to local opposition and high costs, and the latest idea to try and improve the Aston Hill road is to avoid it altogether, by building a new road from the Flintshire Bridge to the A55 – which would at least end the “bridge to nowhere” gibe.

Possibly the most famous modern person associated with the constituency is the former England footballer Michael Owen, who lived in the area and bought an entire street in Ewloe for his extended family. Owen was eligible to play for England because – like many people in this constituency – he was born at the local maternity hospital, which is over the border in Chester. Saltney in particular is a part of Chester which has spilled over into Wales, and the census shows that this is the least Welsh constituency in Wales – in terms of the proportion of people born in the country. Perhaps not surprisingly, in three of the five Welsh Assembly elections to date Alyn and Deeside has returned the lowest turnout.

It wasn’t always like this: eastern Flintshire was once noted for very high electoral turnout. There has been a constituency on roughly these boundaries since 1950 when Flintshire was divided into two constituencies. The county had previously been a single constituency since 1918 when the constituency of Flint Boroughs (covering eight towns and villages only one of which, Caergwrle, was in this seat) was abolished. Appropriately for an area which included Gladstone’s home at Hawarden Castle, both Flintshire and the erstwhile Flint Boroughs were continuously Liberal-held from 1852 until 1924 when the Liberal MP Thomas Henry Parry lost his seat to the Conservatives. Parry had served since winning the Flint Boroughs by-election in 1913, and during the First World War served with distinction in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He was wounded four times in the war, once at Suvla Bay and three times at Gaza, and finished up with a DSO and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. As with many veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, the peninsula cast a long shadow: Parry’s war wounds rendered him unable to campaign in the 1924 election.

The Liberals recovered Flintshire from Tory MP Ernest Roberts in 1929, but their new MP Frederick Llewellyn-Jones found himself on the Simonite side of the 1931 split in the Liberal Party. Although Llewellyn-Jones was easily re-elected in 1931 on the Liberal National ticket against only Labour opposition, he retook the Liberal whip in 1932 – an action which did not go down well among the Flintshire Conservatives – and retired in 1935. And that was pretty much the end of the Liberal challenge in Flintshire, as the Conservatives’ Gwilym Rowlands easily gained the seat in 1935. A former Rhondda urban district councillor and son of a colliery manager, Rowlands had fought several Valleys constituencies in the 1920s elections. He served for ten years without much distinction, standing down in 1945.

The 1945 election saw a political realignment in Flintshire as Labour had a strong result in the county for the first time. Their candidate Eirene Jones was only narrowly defeated by the new Conservative candidate Nigel Birch, who had a majority of 1,039. An Old Etonian who had served on the General Staff in World War 2, ending the war with an OBE and the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Birch had a long parliamentary career which peaked under Eden and Macmillan when he was in the Cabinet as Air Secretary. Birch was translated to the Lords in 1970, ending his days with the title Lord Rhyl.

However, Nigel Birch now leaves our story. By 1945 the Flintshire constituency was by far the largest seat in Wales with over 93,000 electors, and the Boundary Commission divided it in two for the 1950 election. Birch sought re-election in the more Tory-inclined West Flintshire, clearing the way for Eirene White (as she now was) to win the industrial seat of East Flintshire. White had a good majority, 6,697 over the Conservatives on a turnout of 88% – an enormous figure by today’s standards. A political journalist with the Manchester Evening News and the BBC before entering the Commons, White had been elected to the Labour NEC in 1947 and was one of the first female MPs for Wales.

That majority eroded over the years partly thanks to the withdrawal of the Liberals, but the high turnouts continued. In the 1959 Macmillan landslide White held onto East Flintshire by just 75 votes on a turnout of 86% – the ninth highest turnout in the UK. She increased her majority to 3,956 in the 1964 election on a turnout of 87% – the second highest turnout in the UK – and made the seat safe in the 1966 Wilson landslide, again with an 87% turnout. By now White was a junior minister in the Wilson administration, serving in the Colonial, Foreign and Welsh Offices.

Eirene White was translated to the Lords in 1970 – serving as Deputy Speaker of that chamber from 1979 to 1989 – and was replaced as MP for East Flintshire by Barry Jones, who won rather narrowly in the 1970 election before making the seat safe. Jones had served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers before becoming a teacher and president of the Flint County branch of the NUT. He had had a near-miss in the 1966 election, coming close to gaining Northwich from the Conservatives. In the two 1974 elections and 1979 he saw off a future MP – Alex Carlile, who was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire from 1983 to 1997 and now sits in the Lords.

Jones had a scare in the 1983 Thatcher landslide – the first election under the modern name of Alyn and Deeside – when his majority fell to just 1,368 over the Conservatives. (Their candidate that year was Simon Burns, who would later serve for thirty years as MP for Chelmsford.) For most of the Kinnock leadership of Labour Jones was Shadow Welsh Secretary, although his only ministerial experience was from 1974 to 1979 when he was a junior Welsh Office minister. 1983 was Jones’ last close result, and in 1997 he saw off a future Welsh Assembly member, Eleanor Burnham of the Lib Dems. That 1997 election was the first contest on the current boundaries of the Alyn and Deeside constituency, which survived the 2010 review unchanged.

Barry Jones retired in 2001 after thirty-one years’ service, and now sits in the Lords as Lord Jones. He passed the Parliamentary seat on to Mark Tami who remains in situ as only the third MP for this seat since 1950. Tami had been head of policy for the Amicus union before entering Parliament, and most of his career has been spent on the Labour backbenches. Again he has had some scares – the Conservatives got within 2,919 votes in 2010 and within 3,343 in 2015. Despite speculation of a Conservative gain when the 2017 election was called amid Theresa May’s huge poll leads, Tami increased his majority last June and now looks to have a seat which is safe enough: in 2017 he beat the Conservatives by 52% to 40%. At his first election in 2001 he saw off Conservative candidate Mark Isherwood, who has sat in the Welsh Assembly since 2003.

Strangely enough these close results have never been seen in the Welsh Assembly elections, in which Alyn and Deeside has been safe Labour throughout. Its first AM in 1999 was Tom Middlehurst, who handed over to Carl Sargeant in 2003. The most recent Senedd election was in 2016, when Sargeant had 46% to 21% for Mike Gibbs of the Conservatives and 17% for UKIP candidate Michelle Brown, who was elected from the North Wales UKIP list and has been
regularly courting controversy since.

The last Flintshire county elections were in May 2017, during the general election campaign. It’s often the case in Wales that local elections aren’t particularly helpful in clarifying the national picture, and this is true in Alyn and Deeside which at county level tends to be a battle between Labour and independent candidates. In vote terms Labour came out on top last May in the divisions making up this constituency but only narrowly: they had 43% of the vote to 41% for independents. The seat count – 22 for Labour, 13 for independents, 2 Tories and one Lib Dem – was more decisive but also reflects that Labour won five seats (in four divisions) unopposed. Since May Labour have held a by-election in Buckley Bistre West – the division which elected the Lib Dem councillor in 2017.

And so we finally come to this by-election, which is unusually being held on a Tuesday due to a Welsh Assembly rule that all vacancies should be filled within three months. Carl Sargeant died on 7 November, so today is the last possible date for the election.

Defending for Labour is Carl Sargeant’s son Jack, from Connah’s Quay. Just 23 years old and with a background in engineering, Jack Sargeant is seeking to continue his father’s constituency work, be a voice for North Wales in the Assembly and seek justice for his father.

The Conservatives have selected Sarah Atherton. A former district nurse and social worker, Atherton lives in Gresford, near Wrexham, and sits on Gresford community council.

UKIP have decided not to nominate a candidate, ostensibly out of respect for Jack Sargeant.

Three candidates complete the ballot paper. The Plaid Cymru candidate is Carrie Harper, a Wrexham councillor. Standing for the Lib Dems is Donna Lalek, a former teacher and Broughton community councillor. Completing the ballot paper is Green Party candidate Duncan Rees, from Ruabon near Wrexham.

So that is the tragic story of the first Welsh Assembly by-election since Ynys Môn in August 2013. If Jack Sargeant successfully follows in the footsteps of his late father, he will become by far the youngest member of the Assembly – and he will also shore up the Welsh Government. Labour are short of a majority in the Assembly, holding 28 out of 60 seats plus this vacancy, and form a minority administration at Cardiff Bay in coalition with the single Liberal Democrat AM. A Labour hold in this by-election would make the Whips’ task easier – but if Jack makes his first priority as an elected representative seeking justice for Carl, things could get very difficult very quickly for Carwyn Jones.

Picture of the Flintshire Bridge at sunset by Adam Tas (CC BY 2.0).

Sarah Atherton (C)
Carrie Harper (PC)
Donna Lalek (LD)
Duncan Rees (Grn)
Jack Sargeant (Lab)

June 2017 general election Lab 23315 C 18080 PC 1171 UKIP 1117 LD 1077
May 2016 result Lab 9922 C 4558 UKIP 3765 PC 1944 LD 980 Grn 527
May 2015 general election Lab 16540 C 13197 UKIP 7260 LD 1733 PC 1608 Grn 976
May 2011 result Lab 11978 C 6397 LD 1725 PC 1710 BNP 959
May 2010 general election Lab 15804 C 12885 LD 7308 PC 1549 BNP 1368 UKIP 1009
May 2007 result Lab 8196 C 4834 Ind 3241 PC 2091 C 1398 UKIP 1335
May 2005 general election Lab 17331 C 8953 LD 6174 PC 1320 UKIP 918 Forward Wales 378 Ind 215 Comm 207
May 2003 result Lab 7036 C 3533 LD 2509 PC 1160 UKIP 826
June 2001 general election Lab 18525 C 9303 LD 4585 PC 1182 Grn 881 UKIP 481 Ind 253 Comm 211
May 1999 result Lab 9772 C 3413 PC 2304 LD 1879 Ind 1333 Comm 329
May 1997 general election Lab 25955 C 9552 LD 4076 Referendum Party 1627 PC 738