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The fight for the Rhondda as Labour seeks to reverse its ‘terrible shock’ from 2016

“I’m from the Rhondda” became something of a catchphrase for Leanne Wood when she appeared on national TV debates in the 2015 General Election.

Yet six years later, she faces a very different challenge from the one she dealt with in those TV studios. Instead of the UK political leaders, she is up against authentic female Valleys politician who wants to take her place.

Buffy Williams is Labour’s big hope in a seat where the party thinks it has a serious hope of gaining a seat. The 43 year old is a community campaigner who took over the community centre in Pentre when the council needed it off their books and has transformed it into a proper community hub.

Her hard work has led to awards and TV appearances and a high profile locally. Her party will be hoping she is in a good position to overturn what was described by Peter Hain as “a terrible shock” when Ms Wood unseated cabinet minister Leighton Andrews in the 2016 election.

The seat remains very keenly contested. Labour MPs have represented the seat at Westminster since it was created in its modern form in 1974. Plaid has only won it twice in Welsh elections, firstly in 1999 with Geraint Rhys Davies and then with Ms Wood 17 years later.

The challenge for Ms Wood now is to do what her predecessor could not do in 2003 when he lost to Leighton Andrews and win the seat for a second time. She won 50.6% of the vote five years ago but her majority of 3,459 votes over Labour is not insurmountable. Ukip was a distant third here in 2016 with all other parties losing their deposits.

This is a fight between two well-known local women. It’s also a fight between two parties with very different visions of the future of Wales. Under Plaid’s current leader Adam Price, those differences are much more pronounced and it’s not clear how that will go down in the Rhondda.

Theresa May ducked out of the seven-way BBC debate

Buffy Williams says her family and colleagues all asked her if she was mad when she spoke to them about her plan to run for election to the Senedd.

“They all asked if I was mad,” she says.

“But this is something I really want to do and something I really believe in. As I said to them, look what I’ve done at a grassroots level. This feels like the natural next step,” she said.

Mrs Williams, a mum of three, lives in Pentre. Her first bid for election in 2017 saw her come last in the council elections for her local ward of Pentre.

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The most common thing people will tell you is that she is completely different to her Labour predecessor.

“Somebody said to me ‘you’re a completely different candidate because you wear your heart on your sleeve and your politics are people’ and I thought that was such a lovely thing to say.

“I suppose if I sat down and thought about it, it is all about the people and that’s how I have been so driven.

“Having lived here all my life, I have seen the best and the worst of the Rhondda.”

After her own home, and hundreds of other homes were affected by flooding, she put herself out there in the press not because she enjoyed being on TV, in fact she hates it, but she wanted the community to be heard.

“They were really dark days,” she admits.

Leanne Wood campaigning in Porth

But now she wants to look forward and pull Rhondda together.

Something she thinks would divide the area is Plaid’s pledge for an independence referendum. “Rhondda Plaid Cymru don’t want you to know their main policy is for Wales to split from the rest of the UK,” reads their leaflet.

Mrs Williams says with all the calls she’s made during campaigning, no-one has brought independence up with her and when she has raised it herself they don’t want to know.

“We have more important things to worry about,” she says.

And for her, those things are getting people to invest in the area to keep local business going and providing jobs, places for older people to go and mental health support.

“We need to shop locally now to support those little shops that have been supporting us, and supporting the charity groups and grassroots organisations.”

Improved mental health provision was vital before the pandemic, even more so now.

The issues she raises aren’t a million miles from what Mrs Wood wants either.

After Plaid Cymru polling suggested the Rhondda was in play for 2016, Leanne Wood says she knocked on every door in her constituency.

She was routinely out with campaigners from 10am until 7pm every day, speaking to around 110 people a day.

Then, the chats on doorsteps, across Wales or in gardens were about austerity and what had been taken away from Rhondda.

This campaign’s doorknocking total is currently zero, due to the pandemic, but the topics five years later are broadly similar, Ms Wood says.

She’s not just standing on a party manifesto, but has made her own 12 page document called “The Rhondda’s Next Step” laying out the ways she thinks the Rhondda can run itself, broken down into four areas; health, economy, climate change and education.

It covers things like expanding walking, cycling and gym schemes, flood prevention measures and filling empty homes.

“Covid has highlighted the inequalities that were already there. Rhondda has suffered more than other places because of these long term issues that have never been addressed,” she says.

How the Rhondda voted in 2016:

Rhondda Assembly Election result 2016

And Westminster in 2019:

The criticism from her rival is that she’s had plenty of time to do something about those things and hasn’t done it.

Mrs Williams says: “When Leanne Wood was first elected, I thought to myself, she’s a Rhondda woman and Rhondda born so let’s just see what she can do. I was looking forward to seeing that, I’ve just been really disappointed and I feel there’s so much more she could have done and she hasn’t.

“Someone summed it up to me, they said you have brought more money into the Rhondda than Leanne Wood has while she’s been in the Senedd and I can’t disagree.”

Within Labour circles, Mrs Williams is seen as the best chance they have to oust Mrs Wood.

“I suppose I’m not a run of the mill political candidate,” she says.

While not considering herself a typical political type, she is clearly close to Rhondda MP Chris Bryant, and council leader Andrew Morgan.

“I think it’s really important we have a council leader, MP and MS all singing from the same hymn sheet,” she says.

The pandemic did, to some degree, stop political attacks, at least in the beginning.

But in Rhondda, Labour is working hard. One leaflet being circulated with quotes from Chris Bryant saying of Mrs Williams “She doesn’t mouth off about politics, she gets things done”.

Another quote from him reads: ““She’s a team player and working together as MP and MS we could get so much more done for the Rhondda”

Asked about the comments, Mrs Williams says: “I sort of agree with him”.

Buffy Williams runs Canolfan Pentre in Rhondda

Looking back over the first year of the pandemic, Mrs Wood says there were points where it was important for all politicians to pull together “in the best interests of everyone”.

“If we fail to do that, then lives are at stake. We have got to be responsible,” she said.

She says that leaders in Cardiff Bay haven’t understood the reasons for high infection rates in the Rhondda.

“A lot of the drivers of infection rates locally have been economic,” she says.

“People not being able to take more time off work, people having to use informal childcare because there isn’t anything else or the alternatives are too expensive. So much more should have been done.”

She believes that leaders did not consider the everyday problems her constituents faced in how they framed the rules.

Since her victory in 2016, Ms Wood has had a very public battering when Adam Price and Rhun ap Iorwerth challenged her for the leadership of Plaid Cymru. Mr Price won with Mr ap Iorwerth second. Her third place finish was described as a “humiliating” end to her career. In the first round of voting she got 1,286 votes, Mr Price received 2,863 – more than twice as many votes.

But even that public dressing down, the death threats, court cases and more, when you ask why she is still doing it, there’s a wry smile and then her polished answer. “We have still got lots of challenges in this community that are important to me and that need solving.”

She says she still has the bit between her teeth, and Labour too is out fighting.

Whether it’s Ms Wood or Mrs Williams who wins the battle for Rhondda will only be known in the days after May 6.

The full list of candidates for Rhondda.


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