Vikki Howells: Valleys voice inspired by miners' strike

By James Williams
BBC Wales political reporter

  • Published
Vikki Howells and daughter CatrinImage source, Vikki Howells
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High fliers: Vikki Howells and daughter Catrin on the big wheel

"Isn't that awful," Vikki Howells jokes about having turned 40 this year.

How did she celebrate? "I didn't do a lot on the day actually - we had late voting in the assembly."

Although there is to be a spa weekend with friends in October, her answer is revealing - politics is ever-present.

Weekend activities? "Usually politics does infringe on the weekend."

Favourite TV programme? Sunday Politics. "I think when it's your passion it's hard to switch off from it," she adds.

But hers was not a political upbringing.

"Nobody in my family was interested in politics really," the Cynon Valley Labour AM says.

"So it came as quite a shock to them that this became a passion of mine at quite a young age."

Image source, Vikki Howells
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Vikki says her parents kept their politics "close to their chests" but now support Labour

Born, raised, and still living in Aberdare, I ask Vikki whether her parents, despite their indifference, were Labour supporters.

A pause followed by a wry smile suggests not.

Conservatives? UKIP? Plaid Cymru?

"They kept their cards close to their chest," she says, without a hint of irony, before adding they are now Labour supporters.

Strike impact

An only child, life with her mother, who worked in a local bank, and her father, an aerospace engineer at the then British Airways site in Nantgarw, was "very ordinary".

"One of my earliest memories was finding out that there was no Father Christmas because the Christmas of 1984 there were so many people in my class who weren't having Christmas presents," she says, recalling the impact of the year-long miners' strike.

"Things like that really mark you and shape you."

Vikki was seven years old at the time.

Although "not sporty whatsoever", she recalls spending a lot of time outdoors on her bike and "was very bookish as a child".

"I used to go to Aberdare library once a week and take out the maximum number of books, which I believe was seven, and read them all and take them back," she says.

"I loved Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, all sorts really."

Image caption,
MP Ann Clwyd and the miners of Tower colliery have both been inspirations to Vikki Howells

While studying for her A-levels at the local St John the Baptist Church in Wales High School, Vikki was inspired to join the Labour party by the buyout of Tower Colliery by its miners.

The politics of the mining industry would be the focus of her Masters degree on modern Welsh history at Cardiff University, taken after an undergraduate degree there in history and Welsh history.

She lived in the capital during her university years, which were "quite sensible, really", but she used to go home every weekend "because I'm very much a family person".

"You know, I've always been very much rooted in Aberdare and that's something I can't ever see changing."

'Raising aspiration'

Home would be her base when she then undertook her teacher-training course in Swansea before landing a teaching placement and then a job at St Cennydd Comprehensive School in Caerphilly.

"I think the biggest challenge of teaching in a valleys secondary school is raising aspiration - definitely," she says.

"There were lots of children there whose parents had no formal qualifications themselves.

"Trying to engage with those children, make them believe in themselves academically, and to try and make them aspire for the very best is a very rewarding thing.

"But it's a challenging thing as well."

Vikki's 16-year career as a teacher, her last and only job before becoming an AM, started back in 2000.

Image source, vikki howells
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Vikki Howells (left) meets Tony Blair with other young Labour hopefuls in 2000

The same year she was one of a group of promising young Labour members invited to Downing Street to meet the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

A picture from behind the black door hangs in her study with some familiar political faces alongside her - fellow AMs Rebecca Evans and Jayne Bryant, and council leaders Andrew Morgan (Rhondda Cynon Taf) and Anthony Hunt (Torfaen).

"It's like a 'Who's Who' of Welsh Labour politics," she says.

Vikki can not remember her conversation with Mr Blair, but it is likely he had other things on his mind - "It was the same day that his son finished his GCSEs and ended up being drunk on the streets of London!"

As chair of the Cynon Valley Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and a member of Labour's women's forum, she was becoming increasingly involved in party politics at the time.

"I was always active at the local level, behind the scenes, helping out in the election campaigns and so on and that was a really great passion of mine," Vikki says.

So, is she Old or New Labour?

"I would call myself Welsh Labour. I think that Welsh Labour sits quite nicely between those things now and that's very much where I see myself."

Image source, Vikki Howells
Image caption,
Vikki and Ann Clwyd welcome former Iraqi deputy PM Barham Salih to Wales in 2004

As for political influences, Vikki lists Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan, Baroness Gale and Ann Clwyd.

"I feel that I'm very much influenced by an amalgamation of different individuals," she says, before singling out her fellow AM, Baroness Eluned Morgan, as "somebody I've always looked up to".

"I feel that she's Labour royalty, really, but she doesn't know it. Now I sit next to her in the chamber she's become a really good friend and a mentor to me."

But it was only by chance that Vikki ended up in Cardiff Bay.

Career path

She only put her name forward for selection for the Cynon Valley constituency in the assembly after the original choice, Rhys Lewis, stepped down for "personal reasons".

Why didn't she put her name forward for the first selection process?

"Because at that point I wanted to go to Westminster. It was always what I thought would've been the right career path for me.

"I'm so glad that's the way things worked out for me," she says of her election to the assembly.

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Vikki Howells does not see the Senedd as a training ground for Westminster

With Eluned Morgan and Huw Irranca-Davies swapping Westminster for the Senedd in last May's assembly election, it was somewhat of a watershed moment in Cardiff Bay politics.

"I think in the past it's been seen, the assembly, as a training ground for people to move on to Westminster but I don't see it that way at all.

Winning her seat was "one of the best evenings of my life", Vikki says.

Her 51.1% vote share was Labour's third highest in the election. Being "very competitive", she'd "love to be number one next time".

So, having enjoyed her first year in the assembly, what has been the biggest frustration?

"Some of the occasions where the compact with Plaid Cymru has not worked in the way that I anticipated that it would."

If she was in charge she would see Labour go it alone, believing the party is in a position now where it could afford to do so.

Image source, Vikki Howells
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Vikki wants to see communities thrive without the need for anti-poverty projects

I meet Vikki at a lunch and fun club in Penywaun Primary School.

With a group of local children, about the same age as her 10-year-old daughter Catrin, kicking a ball around us, she tells me that tackling poverty is one of her main political issues.

"What I would like to achieve in my term of office is things that will look at the root causes of poverty, and really try to get under the skin of that, so that we can improve the living standards for communities like Penywaun so projects like this in the future wouldn't be needed."

For Vikki and fellow Labour colleagues Hefin David, Lee Waters and Jeremy Miles, the focus should be on what's been described as the foundational economy - services such as food, care and retail.

"We can look back to the days of the WDA (Welsh Development Agency) and we can see firms like Panasonic, for example, that have come and gone. We need to learn lessons from that," she says.

"Of course, it's great to still encourage inward investment but that really needs to be balanced.

"As a nation we know what it's like to put all your eggs in one basket with regard to industry - coal mining being the perfect example - and then seeing what happens when the rug is taken from underneath you.

"When you look around the valleys there are all sorts of really successful, very small businesses, but what we're not so good at in Wales is helping those businesses to grow into thriving medium-sized enterprises.

"I believe that is where the government needs to redouble its efforts."

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Although ambitious, Vikki says she wants to take her political career "one step at a time"

Unprompted, Vikki points to the impact of European Union funds as a "lifeline" for her area.

The referendum result was "devastating" for her, but it was not a surprise her area voted to leave.

"While I know where the money has been spent, I think, with hindsight, we weren't very good really as politicians from all walks of life at really flagging up where that money was being spent."

Does she have any hope that Brexit can be a success?

She gives a faint laugh before saying: "I have difficulty with that but there are certainly some opportunities.

"For example if you look at agriculture and the Common Agricultural Policy, there are ways now in which we can take hold of that to try and create a system that works better for Wales.

"But then whenever I think about the positives like that it's always set against what I see as much greater negatives."

Uncertain about Wales' future, she is, however, clear as to her own.

"You should never take it for granted but I would absolutely love to remain in politics for the rest of my career," she says.

"At the moment I'm very happy serving my constituency but if the opportunity came for promotion in the future I'd look forward to it greatly.

"I am ambitious," she adds, listing the environment, economy and education portfolios as areas of interest to her.

What about first minister, I ask?

"I'm not sure about that. Take things one step at a time!"

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