Huw Thomas: “I encourage everybody to vote. If you don’t vote, you won’t get listened to”

HUW THOMAS would probably be the first to admit that, in comparison to some current members of Parliament, he’s right at the start of a career in politics. Having joined the Labour Party in 2008, Huw was selected as their Prospective Parliamentary Candidate just over a year ago, in December 2013. Speaking at the time, the last (and so far only) Labour MP for Ceredigion, Lord Elystan Morgan stated, “In Huw, you have someone who knows the area, its people and its culture, thoroughly well. He would be a substantial asset to Ceredigion, and a strong and distinguished Welsh voice for Ceredigion in Westminster.”

Huw ThomasThis notion of him being somebody who knows the area and its people ‘thoroughly well’ seemingly has solid foundations. Thomas was born in Aberystwyth at Bronglais Hospital and went on to attend two of the local Welsh schools; firstly Ysgol Gymraeg Aberystwyth and then Ysgol Gyfun Gymunedol Penweddig, both located at the end of Plascrug Avenue. He then went on to Somerville College, Oxford to study music between 2003 and 2006, where he was both orchestral manager of the Oxford University Orchestra and captain of the Somerville College Boat Club. However, after deciding that “being a professional musician was not for me” he subsequently returned home to Aberystwyth to read for a Masters degree in International Relations from the Department of International Politics.

Following his masters, Huw moved to Newport to take up a job with Airbus, training in and, subsequently, becoming a professional project manager. Having stayed in the job for just over two years, he changed tact slightly and began his current job as a project manager for the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, promoting sustainable transport across Wales.

When it comes to his political convictions, Huw is pretty clear. Sitting in the upstairs of the Abertystwyth Arts Centre, he tells me that the “only party who have changed life in Britain for the better in the last 100 years have been the Labour Party”. This somewhat echoes comments he made when he was first selected as the candidate  back in December 2013.

Speaking after his selection, Huw said:

“It is a fantastic honour to stand for Labour in the area I was born and brought up. My family has lived here for generations, and growing up in a close-knit community in Ceredigion has shaped me as a person and remains a fundamental part of my identity.

“Our communities are being hit hard, with the Lib Dems fully supporting the Tory cuts. From a huge hike in tuition fees, to the cost-of-living crisis that blights our towns and villages – no one in Ceredigion voted for these policies, and I will hold the current MP to account. The people of Ceredigion badly need a Welsh Labour MP that will put them first, and stand up for those struggling to make ends meet.”

“My campaign starts here. I want to share my vision for a revived Ceredigion which is economically thriving and culturally dynamic, where young people can enjoy good careers without leaving the area, and where the elderly and vulnerable are treated with respect and dignity, not as third class citizens. I feel very passionately about making Ceredigion a better place, and I look forward to hitting the doorsteps and pounding the pavements between now and the election, speaking and listening to as many people as possible.”

Huw is pretty clear when asked about the main challenges facing Ceredigion today, suggesting that one of the major issues is the significant issue of low pay in rural areas. Statistics show that close to one-third of workers in Ceredigion earn less than the living wage and Huw argues that we need to “look at the institutions that could be paying the living wage but don’t; one of those being Aberystwyth University, which frankly isn’t good enough. The only way to develop the local economy is if it becomes a higher wage economy”. Evidently, one of the main ways in which this issue could be alleviated, as Huw suggests, is to stop, or at least slow down, the brain drain of talented young adults from leaving Ceredigion to find work and employment opportunities in more prosperous areas of the country. “Students often want to stay in Aberystwyth but can’t for various reasons and this has a follow on  impact on the local economy because less money is then going to local businesses which in turn, harms the economy of the town. It’s a cyclical cycle”.

After a particularly gloomy and serious start to the interview, I moved on to ask what Huw believed the major positives of Ceredigion were and the impact that they had. Unsurprisingly, like many of us when asked to list the benefits of Ceredigion, he was quick to highlight what he described as the “purely magical natural beauty” of the area and what a wonderful and special place Ceredigion was. Interestingly, he also pointed out the “cultural dynamic of the university towns” (Aberystwyth and Lampeter) and the strong cultural identity and richness which they both contribute to the constituency.  “The quality of life could be absolutely superb here, we just need to get the message out there and make sure that message is right”.

Huw laughs when I ask him why he thinks young people are so disillusioned with politics at the moment and what could be done to change this problem. “If I knew the answer to that question I’d be the Prime Minister”. Quite so, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he has nothing to say on the matter – “I think engaging with politics take effort, but the problem is that politics has become grubby. Political parties are often very quick to tarnish one another and then suddenly, we all look bad”.

The problems of ‘grubby politics’ and political parties being quick to tarnish one another is hardly a new phenomenon for Huw; he’s being a Councillor representing the Splott electoral ward on Cardiff Council since May 2012. Only last Thursday, Council Leader Phil Bale survived a vote of no confidence, an ongoing saga that has highlighted both strong divisions among the Labour bench, but also the harsh reality of having to form a budget that is acceptable to the majority of people in 2015. Huw is clear on how he views the situation of young voter apathy – “It is very easy to think that all politicians are the same. However, it takes engagement with the process and a decent media to report the differences between the parties and the candidates”.

As Huw, quite rightly, points out, all of the major parties tend to have more policies directed towards pensioners than students and other young adults. The reasoning behind this is painfully simple; pensioners vote, young people do not. Therefore if you’re a major political party it makes practical sense to gear your policies towards older people.

As a native of Aberystwyth, it is clear that Bronglais Hospital has had an important impact on the lives of Huw and his family. He was born in the hospital, and a number of his family members have received “excellent” care there. However, he is of the belief that “in the past, the Hywel Dda health board has been guilty of not understanding the problems faced by the people of West Wales when it comes to healthcare”. Despite this, he is pleased with the recommendations made in the Longley Report and says that they have to be delivered. “We’ve got to remember the pressure that the health service and social services are under due to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition”. In the interest of fairness, it is worth reminding / pointing out to readers that the health service in Wales is controlled and run by the Labour-run Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff, not Westminster.

On the subject of the Coalition government, Huw noted how “amusing it was that both coalition parties decided to have their conferences in Cardiff at the same time – nice to see them working together, hand in hand”. On a more serious note he also welcomed more powers to Wales under Devolution, stating that the “reserve powers model is a step in the right direction”. However, he was also keen to point out that “this has to be power for a purpose. I get the sense with the Nationalists (Plaid Cymru) that sometimes it is a case of power for the sake of power. But the point of having power is use it to create change – you have do something with the power you are given”.

Although stranger things have happened in Ceredigion over the years (Cynog Dafis in 1992 comes to mind), it remains unlikely that Huw will win the seat here in Ceredigion on May 7th. Aside from a brief spell during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Labour Party has struggled to get a foothold in what is essentially one of the few remaining liberal strongholds in the UK (although even that seems under threat from Plaid this time around). Despite this, it is clear that Huw is a good candidate – he’s travelled up and down the constituency meeting a wide range of people and has been able to engage with students (has the age advantage in that regard compared to the other candidates), something which has been made easier by students departing en masse from the Liberal Democrats after the tutitions fees debacle (although, again, it’s worth pointing out that Mark Williams did oppose them). I’m not a betting man, however I would say this; I wouldn’t be surprised (if he doesn’t make the cut this time) to see Huw’s name on the ballot paper in a safer Labour seat, probably in South Wales, in 2020.

In conclusion, Huw had a very simple message for the voters of Ceredigion; “I encourage everybody to vote. If you don’t vote, you won’t get listened to”.