Exclusive: The Tab Cardiff interviews Cardiff Central Labour MP Jo Stevens
She’s a big fan of the cheese stall in Cardiff market
Along Albany Road, just opposite a Chinese takeaway and the Globe Theatre, sits Jo Stevens’ constituency office. In this slightly chaotic converted terrace, Cardiff Central’s Labour MP plots her return to Parliament, after the snap election put in danger the job she only just got in 2015.
“I went there thinking there’s no way I’m gonna heckle and shout and stuff,” she tells us of the beginning of her time as an MP at the start of the interview. “Then, after about two weeks I suddenly heard myself shouting at David Cameron across the chamber. You just kind of get sucked into it.”
Amidst boxes of leaflets, ringing phones, and a crimson-covered copy of the New Statesman, The Tab Cardiff sat down with Jo to talk tuition fees, compulsory voting, Jeremy Corbyn, and just how passionately she feels about Cardiff’s nightlife.
Despite being born in Swansea, the MP reassures us she cheers for Cardiff in Varsity. Swansea’s a “lovely place to go to the beach, but my allegiances are here,” says Stevens. The recent Save Womanby Street campaign is but one example of this attachment to Cardiff playing out.
With a Wetherspoons hotel threatening a key part of Cardiff nightlife, Stevens was seen at the heart of the marches to save Womanby Street. She considers it a big win, and a cause that’s close to her heart. “I’ve been going to Womanby Street at weekends for nearly 30 years. I’ve kind of grown up there,” she recounts, telling of a tradition that shows no sign of slowing – she’s heading to Fuel later that evening.
Enthusiastic talk about the arcades and Cardiff Market, which she calls “the most fantastic thing,” is further proof of her Cardiff credentials. “Independent stores are what draw people to Cardiff and we have to make sure we look after them,” she explains.
While it’s obvious that Stevens is Cardiff through and through, there’s also more serious business at hand. This is the first opportunity many students will have to vote, and we’re keen to talk about how she shapes up on some of the biggest issues facing students in Cardiff.
As is wise in a constituency where almost a quarter of voters are students, Stevens wholeheartedly supports Labour’s manifesto commitment to eliminating tuition fees.
“I believe in universal free education, and what happened with tuition fee tripling stopped many students going to university, and saddled graduates with eye-watering amounts of debt.” In fact, she believes the manifesto commitment doesn’t go far enough. “If I had a magic wand I would write off all student debt. It was a bad policy and should be written off,” Stevens says.
It’s a policy that’s won support and scepticism in equal measure. Although fully costed in Labour’s manifesto, many see it as economically unrealistic. Stevens disagrees, arguing that “politics is about choices, you can choose to cut the top rate of tax and cut corporation tax, or you can help out students, it’s about choices.”
Yet, for many students, choice and flexibility is why they don’t want to see the end of zero-hours contracts, we say, when Stevens tells us she’d get rid of them. “I used to be an employment lawyer, so I can tell you through experience that it is possible to employ people on part-time contracts and have flexibility. What you don’t need to do is employ people on a one hour contract where they’re sitting at the end of the phone waiting” is her passionate reply. That flexibility, she says, is available without a zero-hours contract.
The strength of her beliefs also comes to the forefront when we talk about compulsory voting.
As a demographic, young people are notorious for not voting. Stevens believes compulsory voting, in a system similar to that of Australia or Belgium, where people are not forced to vote but must either turn up at a polling station or pay a small fine, would see young people better represented. “It’s a bit like jury service; it’s about giving something as a citizen,” explaining that she sees voting as a civic duty.
One thing that may have been different if more young people voted is Brexit. “I’m devastated about it,” Stevens tells us when discussing the referendum result. Its impact, she argues, will be particularly badly felt in Wales and of detriment to the nation.
Her upset is in tune with Cardiff Central, one of only five areas in Wales to vote remain. Yet, despite her disappointment, she’s not looking to overturn the result.
“The referendum has happened. I would love it if we didn’t actually leave, you know, but I suppose that’s highly unlikely now,” she says, somewhat wistfully. “Now we’ve got to make sure, absolutely sure, that whatever deal is done is in the best possible interests of the country as a whole. If it’s not good enough, we send Theresa May back to negotiate something better.”
In January, Stevens resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, over a forced vote to trigger Article 50. “I felt it should have been a free vote, so that’s why I resigned,” she explains.
Brexit, and her resignation over the vote over the whipped vote isn’t the only time Stevens has found herself at odds with her leader. When Jeremy Corbyn was challenged for the Labour leadership last year, Stevens backed his unsuccessful rival Owen Smith. So, we were keen to find out Steven’s opinions on the Labour leader, considering how popular he has proved amongst young people.
“Will Jeremy make a good Prime Minister? Um…” She pauses. “I think that…he will do a decent job.” Quickly changing tack, she moves on to the importance of people who aren’t Jeremy Corbyn, and tells us that “being Prime Minister and running a government is about building a strong team around you” referencing the strength of the Blair cabinet in 1997.
That evasiveness is present too when we ask her whether Corbyn has the backing of his MPs. “This election, we elect 650 MPs to represent 650 constituencies, it’s not a presidential election. Whoever is the leader of the largest party will form a government,” she says.
“For the people of Cardiff Central, whether they’re fans of Jeremy Corbyn or they’re not fans of Jeremy Corbyn, it’s not Jeremy’s name on the ballot paper here on the 8th of June. It will say, Jo Stevens. People are either voting to re-elect me as their Labour MP or they’re gonna vote for someone else.”
We press her on this, but it seems like the most we’ll get. She’s keeping her cards close to her chest over what she thinks of Corbyn, but it’s hard to shake the impression that she’s trying to distance her campaign from him.
As guarded as her comments on Corbyn are, she compensates by not holding back on Theresa May. She’s critical of the PM’s apparently adversarial Brexit negotiating stance, telling us she sees it as “genuine hostility,” before elaborating. “I think she’s a hostage to the right wing of the Tory party. She’s after UKIP votes in this election, and so that’s why she’s going for an extreme Brexit.”
“She’s like a chameleon. She will say what suits the Tory party at any particular time, and we’re only having a general election because she thinks it will shore up her own position internally in the Tory party.”
“She just can’t be trusted,” the Labour MP tells us.
We ask Stevens about the ‘I am a threat’ billboard on Cathays Terrace. “Is she a threat? I think she is a threat to the future of the country.”
Prime Minister aside, on June 8th the biggest threat to Stevens’ seat is the Lib Dems, whose candidate Eluned Parrott hopes to take the marginal seat from Labour.
Stevens attacks what she sees as the Lib Dems’ nasty campaigning, which she claims not to indulge in. “All you’ll get from the Lib Dems, and it’s all produced nationally, is just nasty, personality based, aggressive, negative campaigning. That’s what they do.”
“I don’t do that. I don’t do negative campaigning.” Despite her comments on Theresa May, she’s keen to point out that her campaigning material focuses on her achievements. We tell her about Lib Dem leaflets we’ve had through our doors, urging people to vote based on the twin spectres of Corbyn and Brexit.
“I don’t think the Lib Dems’ campaigning will work, I really don’t. You’ve got to ask yourself: why are they doing that? Why aren’t they talking about what they’re gonna do if they win?”
After nearly an hour with Jo Stevens, a few things are a lot clearer than when we sat down. Whilst we might be no closer to finding out what she really thinks about Jeremy Corbyn, it’s obvious that the Cardiff Central MP feels a strong connection with the area she represents. She places stock in knocking on people’s doors, and says that “people can judge me on that track record.”
Wisely, she refuses to call the result, instead telling us that “all that matters is the day of the election.” With the Conservative lead shrinking, Stevens tells us she’s more hopeful than when the election was called, “but we’ll see what happens on June 9th.” The seat remains at risk and after weeks of campaigning, some of which nasty, Cardiff and the country will find out who will be representing them in parliament on Friday.