Last week, Gair Rhydd met with Richard Hopkin, the Conservative candidate for Cardiff Central, to discuss his parliamentary candidacy and various political issues. Hopkin stated “this will be the most important election for a generation”; and people should vote for him because it’s “absolutely critical that we don’t throw away all the hard work of the last five years”.
Richard Hopkin was brought up in South Wales in the Swansea Valley, Clydach and speaks fluent Welsh. He went to a Welsh comprehensive school in the 1970s and went on to study law at Cambridge University. Hopkin believes this background helps him “understand very well how the Welsh people think and feel”. After losing his job in 2008, Hopkin said he could relate to “the difficulties which ordinary people have experienced over the last few years”. This led to “quite a solitary experience, which brought home just how damaging economic recession has been.”
This, perhaps, differs from the perception some share about the Conservative Party- that they represent a rich elite, who is out of touch with ordinary people’s hardships. Hopkin’s philosophy is that of a ‘one nation Conservative’, believing we should help the less advantaged people in society. In Cardiff in particular, Hopkin believes “there are pockets of relative wealth and pockets of relative deprivation and it’s important we remember that.” However he added that we can only take care of others if we’ve got a strong economy “to pay for all the first class public services, such as health, education and welfare.”
There are fairly obvious reasons why young people may not believe in the Conservative Party. Many students felt outraged at the rise of tuition fees in 2010. Alongside making it more expensive for people to attend university, the Conservatives plan to take away benefits for 18-24 year olds. Ultimately these are not policies which many students feel will benefit them. Thus it is commonly said that we are the first generation that is expected to do worse than our parents.
With all this in mind, why should young people vote Conservative? Hopkin responded saying: “in my experience, what students care about most is getting a job when they have completed their studies. It’s only the Conservatives who have a long term economic plan to keep our economy growing, creating jobs and paying off debts. There are more than 1.85 million more people in work today than in 2010. These jobs are not insecure or poorly paid; in fact three quarters of the new jobs that have been created since the election are full time. Wages are rising significantly faster than inflation with total pay going up by 2.1 per cent and inflation over the same period at 0.9 per cent. Getting a good job after university depends on having a strong and growing economy – that’s why students should vote for me as the Conservative candidate for Cardiff Central on May 7th.”
Wales has a long history of politics dominated by the Labour Party; to a large extent they have been hegemonic within Welsh society, particularly within the South Wales valleys, since the 1920s. Hopkin argued however that this was changing. He said, “the Conservatives now maintain a 20 per cent core vote in Wales, with 8 MPs out of 40 now representing Welsh constituencies.”
With the political history and culture of Wales in mind, I wondered whether the Conservatives in Wales might receive more hostility than other places. Hopkin responded saying: “I’ve never experienced any hostility. I really enjoy campaigning in Wales and I’m very emotionally attached to Wales. It’s upsetting when I look at health and educational achievement statistics where schools standards are equated with places like Latvia and Bulgaria. I think it’s much harder for the kids in the state sector in Wales to achieve places at top universities and that’s why I do this. I want everybody in Wales to have the opportunities that I had. So no, I don’t think it’s difficult to be a Conservative in Wales.”
Jenny Willott, current Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central has been representing our constituency in Parliament for ten years. The polls suggest she will not continue after May’s General Election, with the favourite appearing to be Jo Stevens, the Labour Party candidate. Willott’s record in Cardiff is somewhat controversial, particularly her voting in favour of the bedroom tax. In her interview to Gair Rhydd, Willott stated that the bedroom tax was not an attack on the poor, but done to make better use of the housing stock. When asked about this, Hopkin agreed with Willott’s decision to vote in favour. He said that this policy, which “is in fact a spare room subsidy’” makes it fairer for taxpayers who “may not be earning very much money themselves”. He argued that “a lot has been done to ease circumstances of hardship surrounding the bedroom tax” in which certain people were given exemption.
Hopkin also stated that “it’s a little known fact that the Labour party actually removed the spare room subsidy from tenants in private housing” and claimed that “all this jumping up and down and screaming about the bedroom tax, it’s somewhat typical of the sanctimony that you often see from the left.” He stated the often-repeated Conservative message: “tough economic times call for tough economic decisions.” The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives formed a coalition in 2010, an event described by Hopkin as “the right thing to do during a dangerous time for the country” after the recession caused by “Gordon Brown’s profligacy.” Despite the partnership between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, Hopkin didn’t see Lib Dem success as likely this time around. “I think inevitably the Lib Dems will be held to account on the U-turn they did with student fees, particularly in a constituency like this where there is a big student population.”
Hopkin described himself as a ‘modern euro-sceptic’, someone who believes we should have a referendum but who “isn’t rushing for the exit.” Hopkin emphasised that he believes we need to have a sensible debate and re-negotiate to get a reformed EU, and only a referendum if that fails.
Comparatively, UKIP and the Conservatives reflect similar sentiments. The Conservatives have been accused of pandering to UKIP’s policies in the wake of the party’s recent UK wide support. Similarly to Gair Rhydd’s interview with Ethan Wilkinson, UKIP candidate for Cardiff North, I asked Hopkin how Wales would cope without the funding and support of the EU.
Likewise to Wilkinson, Hopkin replied that since much of the funding Wales receives is that which the UK, including Wales, has given to the EU in the first place, then it is likely we would have more money available. Hopkin differed to Wilkinson in one regard however by suggesting voting UKIP would make it more difficult to have a referendum on Europe.
Perhaps most interestingly to would be UKIP voters, Hopkin stated that only a vote for the Conservatives would provide for a referendum on the EU.
With the rise of smaller parties in recent years, there is an argument that people need to vote tactically in order to get the result they ultimately want. Hopkin argued that a vote for UKIP with the hope of an EU referendum in mind would be a way of “letting Miliband into Downing Street” which would “deny everyone the chance to have that debate”. This highlights the issues surrounding how the electorate votes between five potential choices. Hopkin weighed in on this by saying that the “real choice” was between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
When asked about other candidates and politicians, Hopkin consistently emphasised that these were not judgements for him to make, that policies were more important than personality, and this was for the electorate to ponder themselves.
Regarding Ed Miliband’s leadership, Hopkin suggested that he hasn’t shown “the leadership qualities you would expect from a potential Prime Minister” and that to him, “Miliband’s style of politics and use of ‘class war’ isn’t very mature, and avoids answering the difficult questions”. Many will regard this statement as controversial. Some will ask how ‘class war’ could be something used to avoid ‘difficult questions’ when there is evidence of huge disparities in wealth and power in Britain, disparities which are reinforced by people who perhaps don’t consider class. Hopkin stated that Labour were not worth voting for since “there is just no credible long term economic plan from the Labour Party, their only plan being more borrowing and more spending”.
Hopkin shared interesting insights about Parliament and the different strands of left and right that exist within each party: “yes, all parties are coalitions. It’s a fascinating question. I find it very hard to categorise myself; I’m very much a social liberal. I’m gay and in a civil partnership so in the gay marriage debate I was clearly in support of that. That’s an issue I’ve been very happy to stand up on and defend. I don’t think people who oppose gay marriage are homophobic, if you ask my elderly mother if she’s in favour of gay marriage she would probably say no. It’s a generational thing. I’m very much a gradualist; I think you have to bring people with you, especially when you’re a minority. I think in ten years people will ask ‘what was all the fuss about?’”
Hopkin had much to say on the topic of religion and the religious context of policies and parliament: “when I’ve come across opposition to gay marriage it has mostly been because people have very genuine and very sincerely held religious views that it’s wrong, which I respect. There are also plenty of Christians and Muslims I’m sure for whom gay marriage is absolutely fine so it’s not always the case.”
In modern times, particularly in the West religion is less intertwined with politics. Many people express concerns at how much David Cameron mentions Christianity in his speeches, in which he claims Britain should “work towards Christian values”. Hopkin suggested this was Cameron’s way of making a point that culturally we are predominantly a Christian country. He also added: “I think Christian values are a short hand for what the culture of this country has been for many centuries. Having said that, in the modern Britain, we also have people of other religions, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and I think all of those religions have something to contribute as well.”
Particularly within the Conservative Party there have been some MPs who report the pressure to have religious faith. Retired Conservative MP James Arbuthnot described how being non-religious within the Conservative party was “as hard as being gay within it”. The House of Commons is perhaps outdated in this regard since MPs are required to attend morning prayers to get a seat in the room. Undoubtedly modern Britain is a multicultural country with people of many religions and a large number of atheists. The hope would be that this is represented in parliament and that parliamentary candidates can feel free to say what they believe in, whether that be any given religion or atheism. Hopkin, however, doesn’t agree there is a pressure to have faith, saying: “religious views are those which shape people’s lives and that’s perfectly legitimate. I don’t think it’s an issue in the modern Conservative Party. It would be interesting to know whether people in Parliament are disproportionately more or less religious than the general population. Nick Clegg has always been very upfront that he’s not a believer; I think David Cameron once said ‘my faith fades in and out a bit like Classic FM in the Cotswolds’ and Ed Miliband, I think, is an atheist.”
“I would describe myself as a Humanist. I was brought up very much in the Christian tradition as a Calvinistic Methodist; I guess you could say I’ve lost my religious faith but I very much believe in morality. I believe that our sense of right and wrong comes from within us. I think there are good and bad things about religion. You only have to look at the Middle East, Northern Ireland and parts of this country to see that extremist religious views can cause problems. I think religious values of compassion and looking after minorities and making sure people aren’t left behind are very laudable concepts.”
Richard Hopkin will run in the General Election for the Conservative Party. Even if you are a student in Cardiff who expects to live elsewhere in the next few years, you could still be affected by the decisions made within this constituency and should vote with this in mind. The deadline at which you can register to vote is looming on the 20th of April. The new system of Individual Voter Registration means that even if you were registered under head of household last year then you still need to re-register yourself this year. To many the idea of voting is pointless. Lots of young people are frustrated with the political system and feel betrayed and under represented in parliament. By not voting however we will see further disintegration of our representation in parliament. Students: in the interests being heard by politicians, get registered, it’s easily done online and then cast your vote come May 7th.