With the run-up to the Senedd elections, I spoke with Labour candidate for Neath and Current MS Jeremy Miles who will be hoping to secure your vote for May 6th
Tell us a bit about yourself and your links to Pontardawe.
I was born in Pontarddulais, from a Welsh speaking family. My dad was a painter and decorator and my Mother was a secretary in the university in Swansea. A Welsh speaking, working class background, I was the first of my family to go to university. There was politics in the family, both my grandfathers were Labour councillors. I was brought up in the village of Pontarddulais and went to the local school.
I went to [secondary] school in Ystalyfera and my connection to the Swansea valley are very long standing from that, I used to catch the school bus up the valley from Pontardulais every day, this before there was a bypass. A lot of my school friends lived in Ponty, Rhydyfro, Alltwen etc..
I then lived in Alltwen until recently when I moved to Rhywfawr which is where I live now. So I have a lot of local connections to the area.
What is your proudest achievement as an AM?
When I got elected in 2016, I had some quite clear things which I wanted to try and achieve. We have reached the end of the Senedd term now and so I have taken stock and looked at what I have accomplished compared to what I had set out to. There were probably 5 or 6 things which I was really keen to be able to achieve and that was based on my own experience and speaking to people locally about what happens to them.
Top of the list was trying to do as much as I could to try and support opportunities for young people with work locally. It has always been a challenge but over the last 5 years, the Neath constituency, including Pontardawe has had about 3,500 apprenticeships starting. There has been a real focus on that and I have been very proud of it.
Another has been campaigning for Mental Health issues. I think in the last year, young people’s mental health has taken a real hit because of how people have been living through Covid and the consequences of that. There has been a massive impact on young people and everyone’s mental health. I am proud of our efforts as a Welsh Labour Government in putting in place mental health provisions in schools. I’m also running a local campaign about trauma awareness, so that we all recognise that people are going through a hard time and we should cut people a bit of slack.
There have been a lot of campaigning about public transport issues. You won’t be surprised to hear that this is one of the most common issues which come through from residents in the Swansea valley. We have had some bus routes restored in parts of the constituency but I hope we will see some real progress moving forward on this issue.
I am very proud of our work on the environmental emergency. We have been robust, a part of that is about decarbonisation but a part of it is about biodiversity and our green spaces. I am very proud that in Neath, the Gnoll park is where the National Forest for Wales has started to be planted. That is about the last thing that I did publicly in person before lockdown began.
Lastly, I was keen when I got elected to do as much as I could to support local small businesses. I set up the Neath Area Economic Forum and that has done some good work. Especially in the last year, i like to think that I have helped point small businesses in the right direction in terms of getting support to get through Covid which has been very tough for then. I hope that, many businesses have had as much help as is available to them.
How would you rate the Labour Welsh Governments response to this pandemic?
I think firstly I want to say thank you to everybody in the Pontardawe and the Swansea Valley area for all the work that key workers have been doing and all the effort that everyone has been doing to keep people safe. It has been a collective effort we have seen.
Across Wales, for the government, the approach we have had throughout is to be cautious and to be guided by the evidence. Not to over promise but to try and be straightforward and transparent with people about the challenges that we face. I think that generally most people appreciate that.
Obviously there are examples where people have not been happy with the guidance, the rules and regulations and that is sometimes for a very human reason. People don’t want to have to limit what they do, that s perfectly understandable. There have been decisions which have been unpopular. In a crisis like this, inevitably some things which we are going to be asked to do are going to be unpopular.
At the end of the day the focus throughout has been to save as many people as possible and generally speaking because of the efforts everyone has made, we have done the best that we can.
Have you felt a little bit politically wedged between Paid Cymru wanting you to go further with restrictions and the Conservatives saying you have gone too far?
I don’t wish to sound impolite but none of that matters in truth. At the end of the day people must reach their own judgement about how they want to see things politically. The single most important thing for me and for the Welsh government has been to do what is right. Some people will be happy and some people won’t be for a range of reasons.
For me, myself, it hasn’t been about doing the popular thing but about doing the right thing. I think most people are pretty fair minded. I have had a lot of people getting in touch saying that they are unhappy with something, but most people give you a fair hearing, in my own experience tend to be willing to support if they think you are weighing things up carefully.
After 20 years of devolution and 20 years with Labour in Cardiff. Wales is still poorer than the rest of the UK. Why?
The experience that wales has had is one of having an economy based on heavy industry. The decline of that economy for reasons such as globalisation, mine-closures etc.. has caused a significant long-term impact.
When you look at devolution, actually for the first ten years, we saw a very rapid improvement in areas where investment was being made. What we have seen over the last ten years because of austerity policies from the UK Conservative government is that improvement has slowed down which is also true in other parts of the UK.
The Welsh government is able to invest in skills, infrastructure and business support but the choice about the level of overall UK expenditure and taxation is down to the UK government. [It is difficult] Unless we have a Labour government in Westminster prepared to invest in our economy like the last Labour government did.
The others thing that I would say is that in the areas of Wales where we have invested, that investment has worked and those economies have caught up. There are challenges ahead and we need to focus on our local economies. We have seen the UK government talk about a levelling up fund which should see money coming into Wales spent in Wales. But that will be spent from London by the Conservative government. Until we have a government in Westminster willing to work with the Welsh Government then there will be a limit to what we can DO bring about that change.
If Westminster is the issue. I assume that you would back an independent Wales?
Well, I want to be respectful about this issue because it is an important issue. I think that most people want, and certainly I want, a stronger voice for Wales and a fairer deal for Wales within the UK. Most people have had enough of the current approach of the UK government under Boris Johnson and they want change.
In my experience, most people don’t want independence and I share that view. Reforming the UK I think needs to happen and what Welsh Labour think needs to happen and it involves difficult choices but frankly so does independence.
Plaids own independence commission says that if Wales wants to avoid deep cuts to services after independence then England will need to continue to contribute to the Welsh economy for about 20 years after. Common sense tells you that is not going to happen. If you want to make an argument for independence, then you need to answer the question of what public services are you going to cut back on? It is important to have an honest debate about these things.
What I am suggesting is a kind of reformed United Kingdom which really giving Wales a stronger and fairer voice. It doesn’t sell as many stickers [as Independence] but at the end of the day, I think it is a more realistic and a better choice for Wales.
DEVOLUTION / INDEPENDENCE ??
Is it a clear enough message from Labour? It is not something which we are hearing, is it further powers? Further devolution? what is it?
I am glad you are giving me the opportunity to say this because it is a sort of federalism really. Where Wales gets a fair deal in terms of funding set out in law which it is not at the moment. More power being exercised in Wales by our democratically elected Senedd and Welsh government. And a settlement which overall is fairer for Wales. For decision about Wales to be taken in Wales but equally for there to be a shared future across the whole UK.
I have family and friends living in other parts of the UK and I want them to flourish in the same way as my friends and family in other parts of Wales. I think what most people want is a much stronger voice within a reformed United Kingdom.
Would that change if Scotland go? By next election we could be without Scotland.
I definitely think that if Scotland were to choose to go independent then it would change the picture fundamentally. I think that most people in Wales would want to think again about our relationship with England and how we could change that, I definitely think that is a big change if it was to happen.
Is there a lack of trust in politicians?
I think most people’s experience is that there are probably less [trust] in general but I think that if you work with people and are straight forward and don’t overpromise, then in my personal experience, most people give you the benefit of the doubt.
Most people, if you engage with them honestly and explain why you do things, even when they don’t agree with you then they respect your view. The gap between politicians and the general public has widened in many ways but I actually think that social media has changed the balance back. Being criticised in a public way, on a human level can be uncomfortable but it gives the opportunity for the electorate to ask more questions and is a good thing in that way.
When we do the facebook live sessions, some people ask some difficult questions. I try to be upfront and if I don’t know the answer then I will simply say so, I’ll equally say so if I don’t agree. One of the things which we should not encourage politicians to do is to say what we want to hear. I believe you should be respectful to different opinions and say, ‘I don’t agree, but clearly we are both entitled to our opinions’. What you don’t want is people overpromising and telling people what you want to hear. I think there is too much of that personally.
Are you engaging with different types of people in the Facebook live sessions to who would usually come to physical meetings? and is this something which is going to stay?
It is definitely going to stay. I am engaging with whoever is participating. The challenge for all politicians is to try and engage with as wider audience as possible. We have elections coming up in May and all parties are looking into how we can do things differently because campaigning is not the same as normal.
We are trying to do more online but that does not reach the whole population. I am trying to do some things on zoom, I spend a lot of time doing discussions with community groups, Schools, Facebook live sessions and engaging online as much as possible. I’m keen to get out and about though, as an elected representative, you can’t really replace that personal contact with people when you are listening to people. That’s fine online but in the flesh you get a different sense. Gives you a better conversation, I hope we can get back to that as soon as possible.
Do you think that the school consultation process should be suspended and that there should be an investigation into it in light of the suspension and comments made by Rob Jones?’
As you know, following the online public meeting I held on the school proposal, I asked for the consultation to be extended to allow more scrutiny and discussion. I think in relation to the comments on the recording which was put online, as you say Cllr Jones has been suspended pending an investigation, which is clearly the right thing as the comments are completely unacceptable.
I think as an MS that it is not appropriate for me to comment in detail on the issues which are being investigated, until the point in time that we have seen the outcome of that investigation.. But I have written to the new leader of the Council Cllr Ted Latham and the Chief Executive to ask that the investigation should prioritise looking at whether the school consultation is affected and what steps will be taken to secure confidence in the process in light of the comments.
What should we expect from Labour if they are given a further 5 years in Cardiff?
I want to campaign on 5 or 6 big things. Job opportunities is still my top priority, especially responding to Covid and Brexit. Skills training, apprenticeships, business support. I want to see us supporting the care sector. A lot of people locally work in the care sector and this has had an especially difficult time recently. I hope to build on the work of my predecessor Gwenda thomas who transformed social care in Wales.
Thirdly I think in terms of our town centres, Neath, Pontardawe, Glynneath and the other areas are under real pressure. They have been for a long time but Covid has introduced new challenges for our town centres. I’d like to continue the good work from the Neath AREA Economic Forum which I set up, and to bring people together after the election if i am re-elected to work on how to revitalise our town centres to respond to covid.
I did some work for the First Minister last summer looking at the long-term effects of Covid and what our prioritise as Welsh Labour should be in terms of responding to it. Investment in our town centres was top of that list, partly to help with local businesses but also to improve access to public services.
The environment is going to be a priority. I think that we are going to see really bold commitments in renewable energy, de-carbonisation, green environment, green housing, I expect to see all of this in the manifesto and I am really proud and keen about that.
Finally, the issue which is becoming more dominant with local constituents is mental health provision. Whether through the NHS or third sector provisions. In the schools, the demand for mental health services is going to increase dramatically and we need to be ready for that. Through Covid, I think most people have struggled at various points. If people have underling mental health problems then they would have found it very, very hard indeed. I think there is more to be done. I do want to see us resolve the devolution settlement here in wales too and to get more powers into Wales.
How do you see the election going?
My focus is on making sure that I persuade enough people in Pontardawe, Neath and the surrounding Valleys that I deserve to be re-elected. I hope that I can achieve that. On the wider picture across Wales, it is hard to know. I am very hopeful that what we get is a Welsh Labour government in the Senedd.
I have given a flavour of what I think needs to change and building on what we have done in the last 5 years. The question for people really is what do people want in order to respond to the pressure from Covid and Brexit? what type of Government do you want to take us forward? I think that most people want a Government at its heart that has a commitment to mutual support, to give people opportunities whether work, skills, training, educational. I think people in our parts of the world want that kind of government and not one focused on taking us out of the UK or on right wing policies like Boris wants here in wales.
Finally. What odds would you give me of Jeremy Miles being leader of Welsh Labour this time next year?
(laugh) There is no vacancy for the leadership of Welsh Labour and I’m very happy with our leader and he has my full support.