Here’s a link to my recent interview with South Wales Argus politics reporter Ian Craig which forms part of the paper’s ongoing ‘Decision Makers’ series:
AFTER 12 years in Parliament as Labour MP for Newport East Jessica Morden is firmly entrenched as one of the most influential politicians in South East Wales.
Born in Surrey but growing up in Cwmbran, the former Croesyceiliog School pupil’s father worked for Gwent County Council’s education department while her mother taught literacy and numeracy at Usk Prison once her and her two older brother were a little older, so, she said, politics was a real force in their lives.
“My dad was a member of the Labour Party for a very long time,” she said. “The family story is he got selected for one of the Cardiff seats for 1966 but he decided he didn’t want to do it because of the impact on the family. It makes you feel a bit guilty.
“He was the chairman of the Monmouth constituency, so children of candidates always used to come and play at our house. We talked about politics at home and I thought there must be a fairer way to do it, about social justice and creating a community and a society that worked for everyone where everyone shared.”
Like so many others from south Wales, it was the Miners’ Strikes of the 1980s which brought home the real impact of politics on people’s lives. “It was the unemployment and the disregard of communities, especially in Wales,” she said. “I remember going into Cwmbran Sainsbury’s and seeing people collect the tins during the strike.”
Studying history at Birmingham, it wasn’t until Ms Morden returned home to south Wales that she became fully active in politics, helping run Labour’s campaign for the 1991 Monmouth by-election, which saw Huw Edwards snatch the traditionally Conservative seat for the party. Given a job in Mr Edwards’s constituency office, Ms Morden held a number of roles within the Labour Party, including in London, throughout the 1990s, and was general secretary of Welsh Labour from 1999 until 2005, during the dawn of devolution.
“That was a really interesting time, and we’d had a difficult election in 1999, so it was about rebuilding the party a bit after devolution,” she said. “Maybe not rebuilding, but reorganising ourselves after the Assembly had come along. My claim to fame when I was general secretary was I organised John Prescott’s visit to Rhyl. I was there in background in all the photos.”
As a prominent figure in Welsh Labour, Ms Morden was key during the pro-devolution campaign leading up to the 1997 referendum, including being responsible for organising a famous picture of then-government minister Peter Mandelson sliding down a helter-skelter, and another featuring the veteran MP alongside a somewhat bemused-looking Stereophonics.
So it was inevitable she would eventually run for office, and was elected in 2005 to a seat which has remained Labour since it was formed in 1983, replacing Alan Howarth, now Lord Howarth. “For me it was always about representing the area I grew up in,” she said. “When there was a vacancy in Newport and it was an all-women shortlist I thought I would just give it a go.”
As the first woman ever elected to a Gwent seat, Ms Morden said she is all-too aware of the importance of increasing the role of women in politics. “There were 191 women MPs elected in 2015 out of 650 in total, so we’ve still got a bit of a way to go,” she said. “It’s important because we have to be representative of the population at large and make sure women’s voices are there at the table.”
Ms Morden said she was particularly conscious she represents a seat which counts influential suffragette Viscountess Rhondda, who famously attempted to blow up a post box in Risca Road in 1913, as a former resident. “I am really proud she was from this area,” she said. “We have to hold onto and think about the effort she put into getting women into public life. I’m quite aware of that really. Whenever we have International Women’s Day in Newport and those sort of event we always remember her and her achievements.”
She added: “We’ve made great strides in the Assembly. When the Assembly was set up we had positive discrimination mechanisms to make sure there was gender balance. That kind of led the way really in Wales, but there’s still more to do.”
Ms Morden, who is also Labour’s party whip for Brexit, said she was under no illusion about the scale of challenges faced by Newport, naming a lack of well-paid, secure work for young people as well as problems with the affordability of housing and the crisis in the steel industry as some of the most pressing. “We’ve had stagnant wages for many years for younger people,” she said. That, combined with student debt and issues to do with housing for younger people in the future, is what I raise in Parliament for Newport East.”
But she added: “There’s brilliant stuff going on in Newport. “Obviously the development on the Riverfront continues apace. And I know a lot of people consider Friars Walk a great success.”
She said in the immediate future she would continue to campaign for tolls on the two Severn bridges to be abolished. “There’s a strong voice for scrapping the tolls altogether, but in the short term we want to get those tolls down as low as possible,” she said. “So, yes, the government have moved, but it’s still not a maintenance-only toll and I would like to see us get closer to that. And there are innovative things we can do, such as the ideas about whether you can do free periods of travel overnight and things like that to help with congestion.”
Ms Morden has also been active in campaigning for the action to be taken to protect the steel industry since it was plunged into crisis last year, and said she would continue to lobby for measures to be taken. “It’s been an incredibly tough time over the past few years for people who work in the steel industry with a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “But we’ve got to ensure we keep the pressure on the government on the things we can do and have a proper industrial strategy and steel strategy.”
She added it was particularly important to make sure the industry does not suffer as a result of the impending Brexit. “We’re just at the start of all that,” she said. “What’s the special deal for the steel industry? What happens with the Single Market? The Devil’s in the detail really and that’s where the role of us as the opposition becomes really crucial, making sure we get the best deal for Newport East and the steel sector.”
Ms Morden has also strongly campaigned for the South Wales Metro project to go ahead, as well as setting up a tidal lagoon project in the city. But she said it was making a real difference to people’s lives which was the most satisfying part of her job.
“Over the year you have hundreds of people who come to you who want individual advocacy with government department, be it on tax credits or benefits or whatever,” she said. “When you’re able to help those people individually and right a wrong, that’s a hugely satisfying part of the job.”