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Old loyalties fray in Welsh ex-steel town divided by Brexit

MERTHYR TYDFIL, Wales (Reuters) - Loyalties of the past are eroding in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil, a stronghold of the Labour Party since its birth more than a century ago and a former powerhouse of now departed heavy industries.

Rows of houses in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, May 22, 2017. Picture taken May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

Merthyr voted for Brexit despite receiving large amounts of European Union funding to help lift it out of deprivation, revealing an appetite for change that could also produce surprising shifts in the British election on June 8.

Nestled in the south Wales valleys, the town used to draw on nearby coalmines to produce vast quantities of iron and steel, and later became a white goods manufacturing center. Today the lush valley is no longer blackened by heavy industry, but is still struggling to recover from the pit and factory closures.

Labour, which is currently in opposition in Britain’s national parliament but holds a majority of Welsh seats, has dominated politics in Merthyr since the town elected founder Keir Hardie as the party’s first member of parliament in 1900.

But Labour fell behind independent candidates in local elections on May 4 and looks set to lose control of the council when three remaining seats are contested at the same time as the general election next week.

Jeremy Davies was among those who broke with town and family tradition by voting independent last month, dissatisfied with the outgoing council over the rising costs of public services and other issues.

“In my Dad and my grandfather’s time it was all Labour, but I don’t vote for them,” he told Reuters. In Thursday’s parliamentary election, he plans to opt for the left-leaning nationalist Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales).

For Davies, Merthyr’s industrial decline is family history. His grandfather took part in a 1984-85 miners’ strike which ended with then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher crushing their union and sealing the fate of the last pits.

The family fell on hard times. Davies had a troubled adolescence in state-run care homes and spent his youth in and out of jail. Now a father-of-three in his 40s, he has turned his life around, working on community projects and outdoor activities with children.

Davies had never voted in his life until last year’s EU referendum, when he cast his ballot for Brexit because he saw the bloc as “a failing thing” that was too meddlesome and had not worked for Britain. It was a moment of political awakening.

“I started to take more notice of what’s happening, not just in my community, further and wide,” said Davies. “It’s made me more aware. If you don’t get involved, stand up and vote, you’re not going to change anything.”

Few expect the historically safe Labour seat to change hands in the general election, not least because the Conservatives remain unpopular due to the Thatcher legacy, but there are signs that under the surface the political landscape is shifting.

Plaid Cymru campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU last year, but Davies sees no contradiction in voting for Brexit and voting for Plaid. Above all, his political choices reflect a rejection of the status quo.

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Like other Welsh valley towns, Merthyr has had millions in EU funding for everything from road-building and jobs programs to the transformation of a dilapidated Victorian town hall into an arts center, complete with recording studios.

Despite the many blue plaques with golden stars that dot the town to signpost EU investments, a majority of 56.4 percent voted to quit the bloc compared with 51.9 percent nationally. Some feel the town voted against its own interests.

Christine Bissex has received EU support for 16 years in her work as head of enterprise and employability at the local college, which involves helping students boost their skills and experience through apprenticeships or work experience abroad.

Among other things, she arranges for students to do internships in other EU countries, which can be life-changing. She cites one 16-year-old boy who is about to start a two-year apprenticeship in Germany, and another who returned so motivated he is now entering skills competitions.

“Brexit could mean we lose all this funding and these students are not going to get all these opportunities,” Bissex said. “I’m worrying because this is the future of my projects and the things that I’m passionate about, that I believe are giving these kids from deprived areas like Merthyr a chance, a chance of a job, a chance to lift their self-esteem.”

One of the star students at the college, 16-year-old Dafydd Jones, won a 1,000-pound ($1,300) grant from Big Ideas Wales, an EU-supported program aimed at fostering young entrepreneurs, for developing a phone app for London underground train users.

“I’ve had strong opinions on the EU thing since day one, not just the funding but also access to opportunities,” said Jones, who would have voted to remain had he been old enough.


At a community center in the deprived Gurnos social housing estate, all but one of a dozen people who spoke to Reuters said they had voted for Brexit. Their main reasons were concerns over immigration and perceived EU meddling in British affairs.

There was a more mixed picture for the parliamentary election. Some said they remained loyal to Labour, some were fed up with elections and would not vote, some were undecided.

In Wales as a whole, which has 3 million people or about 5 percent of the UK population, one opinion poll in April suggested the Conservatives would win a majority of seats for the first time in over a century.

Since then, the Conservative lead over Labour in national polls has tightened, and in Wales Labour have surged back into the lead. However, in some places in industrial south Wales there are more Conservative signs on display than Labour ones, a sight that would have been unthinkable until recently.

In Merthyr, the anti-EU party UKIP came second at the last general election, in 2015, with 19 percent of the vote to Labour’s 54 percent, but having collapsed into chaos over the past year, it is likely to see its share of the vote plunge - possibly benefiting the Conservatives.

Brendan Toomey, a Labour councillor in Merthyr for 18 years and council leader from 2012 until he lost his seat on May 4, felt voters were blaming Labour for cuts to local services that were a result of the Conservative government’s budget austerity.

“We’ve had to make 30 million pounds’ worth of cuts in the past five years,” he said. “I was warning of a train smash in public services but people didn’t want to hear it, and when they did hear it they were looking for scapegoats.”

Toomey said the past showed that the Labour vote in Merthyr was more solid in national elections than in local ones, and he expected the Labour member of parliament Gerald Jones to retain the seat, but with a reduced majority.

More profoundly, Toomey felt the Brexit vote and rejection of establishment politics were a sign of profound disaffection in parts of a community still struggling with the loss of the pits and factories and the sense of identity they encapsulated.

“When you rip the heart out of a community that was built on steel and iron and coal and don’t replace it with anything it’s going to take generations to get that back”, he said.

“We’re still suffering from that particular legacy and there’s a lot of bitterness.”

($1 = 0.7787 pounds)

editing by David Stamp