With the run-up to the Senedd elections, I spoke with Plaid Cymru candidate for Neath and Sioned Williams who will be hoping to secure your vote for May 6th
Tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Sioned Williams and I live in Alltwen. I don’t come from a family of politicians but I certainly come from a political family. Both my parents came from mining families and they instilled in me a real interest in news and in current affairs. My ancestors stood up for workers rights, for women’s rights, and they have instilled that passion in me for fairness and social justice. Mine is a very common story of many families here – my grandparents’ generation were forced through poverty to leave school, my Grandmother went to Grammar school but couldn’t stay on – but she would do things like write letters for people in the street that needed help. That ethos of helping people, of advocating for people, is certainly one of the reasons I wanted to go into politics.
I was a teen in the 80s which was a deeply political time. The Miner’s Strike was part of my political awakening. A lot of the children I grew up with came from mining families. We were passing picket lines on the way to school and we would collect food and funds for the families in school. It was also the time when there were a lot of campaigns that influenced me, like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
I joined Plaid Cymru as a student. Labour dominated in the valleys in Gwent where I grew up. But I felt that they had become managerial, a stagnant force which had lost touch with the people that they once defended and represented. They had lost their radical edge. After University I got into journalism and I think that was inspired by my interest in Wales and people’s stories. I didn’t become active within Plaid Cymru until Leanne Wood became leader. She became my inspiration and remains my inspiration. Leanne has this vision of the importance of grass roots, community based politics, that is in tune with mine. She is a tireless campaigner for her community and it was her example that made me move from being a member to being an activist.
Politics is more of a calling than a career for me. I am 49, I have had quite a long and varied career in different fields. I have worked as a journalist on BBC on television news, and I now work at Swansea University. My hope is that my life experiences and professional skills will help be a new strong voice for Neath and on the national stage.
What connections do you have to the local area?
I moved here in 2007 from Swansea, so this is where the children have been brought up and went to school. My Aunt, Cynthia Dodd (my Father’s sister), was a well known local teacher and lived in Pontardawe until her death 3 years ago. My husband Daniel’s family is also from here, his mother is from Rhydyfro so we had family connections with the area. I was a valley girl, and I wanted a valley community in which to live and bring up my children. So we decided to live here and we love living here.
I manage Ty’r Gwrhyd in Pontardawe which is a community hub. We opened it with help from a government grant to support Welsh speakers and learners and use it to run community courses on Welsh history and culture. I am a community councillor for Alltwen and I’m chair of Cilybebyll Community Council. I was chair of governors at Ysgol Gymraeg Pontardawe for 5 years and I am now a parent Governor at Ysgol Gymraeg Ystalyfera Bro Dur.
I assume that you are standing for election in Neath Port Talbot because you feel that you can do a better job than Jeremy Miles. What would you have done differently to what he has done over the last 5 years?
The reason that I am not in the Labour Party and why I‘m standing for election as a Plaid candidate is because it’s clear to me that Wales can’t afford another five years of a Labour government which has consistently let Wales down in the face of years of Tory austerity, and the neglect and damage inflicted from Westminster. I think that the vision for Neath needs to be more dynamic and ambitious. Devolution needs to be taken forward if it is going to be effective in creating a new and fair Wales.
I think one of the most shameful things we see here are the levels of poverty and neglect. After 20 years of a Labour led government, in Neath Port Talbot alone, over 6,000 children are living in poverty. There are over 200,000 in Wales and of course this is expected to rise as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. One of the things that Plaid Cymru want to do is bring in a child payment which would give £35 a week to all families under the poverty line. Other measures include things like universal free school meals and free childcare, universally available for every child from twelve months – that would boost the income of thousands of households. So, I think that this Senedd election is time for a real radical change.
BACK TO BASICS
I know there are plans afoot to develop Neath town centre but I really think that we need to get back to basics by supporting local businesses and that hasn’t been done enough. We need to be supporting local independent businesses in the town centre rather than building large expensive retail units, and we need to improve transport infrastructure and links. We have seen during the Covid crisis that the high streets in the valley communities of Neath have been a real lifesaver. I think we need to encourage and develop our home-grown businesses. This virus has laid bare how reliant we are on long supply chains and we need to re-think and re-built our food and retail industries from the ground up with more emphasis on local producers.
We need political revitalisation and a democratic change which requires a new government. Welsh Labour’s grassroots movement say that the policies which they have seen in their upcoming manifesto are too cautious and uninspiring. So this is a crucial election, and Plaid Cymru want to be in a position of either being in Government or to be able to influence the next government to ensure that.
How do you feel the Welsh Government have handled the pandemic?
The Welsh government is getting quite a good press. Sometimes deservingly so but I think that we are also viewing the way that they have dealt with this virus in the context of the disastrous performance of the Tory government. At times they have been too slow to act in Wales, reluctant to lockdown and there’s been a stubbornness to listen to advice sometimes. I remember Mark Drakeford for example saying that everyone did not need to wear a mask even though scientists were saying to do so. I also think that there have been some unclear messages from the Welsh government which created anxiety and confusion.
In my opinion, I think that we came out of that Autumn lockdown far too quickly and sharply and I think the government should have shown more leadership then. Neath Port Talbot is one of the five Welsh counties in the UK’s top six areas with the highest death rates. Independent experts have said that the unacceptable level of poverty and ill health here has led to more deaths. One of the main things to blame for this as well is the insufficient financial support avaiable to people who needed to self-isolate. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to work on the computer at home. People need to be able to afford to self-isolate.
It is the government’s job to support them to do that. At the beginning when they were started the payments, the Welsh Government did not realise that there would be single mothers who were needing to take time off work to look after their child who was self-isolating. They were not eligible for support because it was not them who were testing positive. There have been some costly mistakes made.
Is Welsh independence the main aim for Plaid Cymru?
I wouldn’t say that it is the main aim but it is a frame I suppose in which a lot of things which we can achieve can happen. I see independence as devolution has always been viewed – as a process. It is encouraging to see more people and young people engaging with the discussion. I would say that the status quo is unsatisfactory and this feeling that Westminster is not listening to us or working for us is no longer a minority view.
It is easily proven by this Tory government’s behaviour over these last years of Austerity and during this crisis – when they even refused to communicate sometimes with the Welsh government. We have seen over Brexit as well, with the recent internal market bill, that we cannot rely on Westminster to do right by Wales. And I’m sorry but taking the UK Government to court every few years is not the answer.
CHANGES IN UK
Whatever your view on independence, the UK as we know it is now changing. We have to understand what an independent Scotland or a unified Ireland will mean for Wales. I am not blind to the challenges and no amount of flag waving will magic away the economic and legal problems which will need to be resolved in order for it to be a successful model of independence for Wales. But these are not insurmountable, and I don’t think the status quo is acceptable if we want a fair future fro our families and a more socially equal Wales. I don’t think a referendum can be won without an economic restructuring of Wales.
Plaid Cymru would have to show we are competent to improve peoples lives and change the perception of where decisions should be made. I firmly believe that decisions should be made as close as possible to the communities which they effect. As a candidate in Neath I have no doubt that the sort of regeneration which we want can only occur within a Welsh frame and within a wider project of regeneration and empowerment. I think Independence is something which can empower our communities.
Adam Price told Andrew Marr this morning that Welsh independence was needed. Is it the right time for such discussions?
I think it is absolutely the right time. The UK is changing and by the end of the decade we could be looking at an independent Scotland and a unified Ireland. We need to start thinking about this now. This is not independence for the sake of it but on coming out of this crisis, when we know that unemployment is going to be high, we know there are a lot of things that we want to change about our society for the 1,000s of families whose future depend on Wales being a more equal nation. I think therefore that this is the time that we need to have that discussion.
In Pontardawe, Plaid have been highly successful in recent elections. Why have they not done so well elsewhere in Neath Port Talbot?
I think we have done fairly well right across the county. We have a councillor in the middle of Neath town, councillors in Bryncoch, in Blaengwrach and Glynneath, in the Dulais Valley, Port Talbot and here in the Swansea Valley from top to bottom. As a party, we are a growing group and we are the main opposition in NPT council. We recently took a seat from Labour in Rhos. I would say that we are fairly well represented. I think people are coming around more and more to the fact that they want a new voice and a different voice, they want change.
KNOCING DOORS (OR NOT)
Is it more difficult for challenging parties because you are unable to knock doors?
Definitely. Engaging with all groups is really difficult at the moment. I am trying to do as many live zooms as I can, and social media is crucial but the candidates who do not have the platform of sitting politicians and their access to the media are definitely at a disadvantage. We can’t visit groups and have the talks and meetings which we usually have. We aren’t even allowed to leaflet at the moment and so it is extremely challenging and I would like to see the Welsh government think about this. Of course, safety needs to come first but consideration needs to be given to democracy. If we are to have this election on May 6th then consideration needs to be given to ensure that it is a fair democratic election where all voices are heard.
Would you want to see the election delayed ensuring this?
It is a difficult one, because obviously as an opposition party we would want change for Wales as soon as possible and so we want an election as soon as possible to make that happen. But I suppose personally I wouldn’t mind it being delayed a month or so. If that allowed us to safely knock doors or leaflet then I personally wouldn’t be opposed to a delay to give opposition parties a chance to communicate with people. Not everyone is on facebook and sometimes it is different to get your message across as we all know that social media can sometimes create a certain tone. So I do think that it is very important that all parties can engage properly with the electorate if that can be safely. But as a matter of principle, I want change for Wales as quick as possible.
CLOSING SCHOOLS IN PONTARDAWE
How do you feel about the proposed school closures in Pontardawe?
I definitely think that it needs to be reassessed. A fairer, fuller and clearer consultation needs to be set out, and I think the process should have been put on hold. To do this now during Covid when everyone was so anxious about things I think was so unfair. I definitely didn’t think that lumping the closure of the 3 schools in their communities into one consultation made any sense and it reinforced the feeling that the Labour council weren’t going to listen no matter what was said.
The repercussions of the Covid crisis were not taken into account either. The Welsh government has recently introduced laws for clean air, and also a new and more locally focussed school curriculum. How can it make sense for a Labour council to bring in a proposal which is in direct contradiction of these laws? There are many other more specific arguments which have been so well expressed by those aganst the closure of the 3 schools over the past months. This is a very ill thought-out plan and I am definitely opposed to it.
Does the Welsh Assembly and the local AM need to take more of an active roll in decisions like this?
Yes. I think there can be a complicit silence sometimes. I don’t think that it is healthy when there have been years and years of one party in power at so many levels. It would not be healthy for any party to be in power for so long. Labour have been in power for Wales for over a century and there is a stagnant and arrogant attitude which creeps in sometimes. I wouldn’t tar every politician with the same brush but as a local representative you should try and reflect your community’s views. Of course there are party sensitivities about certain things, but I definitely think we are seeing cynicism around political system because people don’t feel they are being listened to.
I’ll ask you a very straight question from that. Do you think that Godre’r’graig school was closed in an underhand way, have NPT council been dishonest?
I haven’t seen the evidence that the council have seen. So we have got to hope that the council is being honest with the people of Godre’r’graig and has acted in good faith. But I have also heard the opinions of the local people, who make very strong arguments against the decision. I would hope that the Labour council would also listen to those views.
How do you think the election will play out?
I think it will be a really interesting election. People are ready for change and I think the opinion polls are showing that. I hope that there will be a new government in Cardiff. We have seen our lives transformed by Covid and things need to change, we need to address the inequality in our society and the other big issue is addressing climate change. We know it is the biggest challenge of our times. And we have seen with this pandemic that swift action is possible and that people will respond to it.
Things like developing and producing Green energy are key in rectifying that poverty gap. Neath could be the forefront of the Green jobs revolution that Plaid want to create. People feel I think that we can’t go back to same old Wales we need to move forward and create a new Wales. And hopefully that will be reflected in the ballot box in May or whenever the election does happen.
You talk about having a new government which would mean a non-Labour government, can you envisage Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives?
No. Adam Price has already said that. As you have heard, given my background, I would never go into coalition with the Tories.