Port Talbot MagNet is introducing a new politics section to our site in which we will profile local political representatives and the latest political developments in the county borough of Neath and Port Talbot. Local representatives have also been asked to submit a regular column on the issues that matter to them and the work they are doing in the area.
To start our series of profiles, Port Talbot MagNet recently caught up with Bethan Jenkins AM, who was elected as an AM for South West Wales in 2007 and successfully retained her seat in this May’s Assembly elections. Bethan holds the distinction of still being the youngest AM in the Senedd, but her hard work and experience as an AM in the past five years has seen her recently appointed spokesperson for Plaid Cymru on heritage, media and sport.
Bethan, what got you interested and involved in politics?
I’ve always been interested in politics. I grew up in Merthyr, and my family has always been political.
In the 1980s, when I was about eight years old, we were involved in the anti-Apartheid movement. We would organise pickets and go into supermarkets, fill up the shopping trolley with South African produce and not pay for the goods. We would have celebrations outside our local library for Nelson Mandela’s birthday, when he was in prison, and Bishop Desmond Tutu came to Merthyr.
I can’t say I was fully aware of the seriousness of it all, but I was always involved in one way or another. Looking back, it obviously played a part in me getting more involved later on.
Why did you get involved with Plaid as opposed to any other party?
Because I grew up in an area where you had local Labour politicians who did nothing at all for young people. I can’t say they did much for any other generation either.
We had no park and no facilities. We would ask them to put a slide in our area and there would be local contention just about putting up a slide next to a housing estate – we felt we weren’t getting anywhere and I wasn’t vaguely inspired by that attitude.
It wasn’t until I went to university in Aberystwyth that I started to feel strongly about other issues, such as women and tuition fees, so it wasn’t anything to do with Plaid initially – it was more that the issues came first and I became party-political later.
I became more party-political towards the end of my time at university. In Merthyr, Plaid were equally inactive so they didn’t inspire me there either. But at university there was an independence group involving Leanne Wood and Dafydd Iwan, and I particularly identified with them and felt inspired by them.
I came to be much stronger in my belief in having powers for Wales and how we could do things differently.
I still wasn’t totally convinced by party politics, but Plaid were more inspiring than the others. I was moving closer to them because of their opposition to the top-up tuition fees that were being introduced by the Assembly at the time. The top-up fees issue was the key thing for me. I was campaigning hard against the Rees review (Teresa Rees). Plaid encouraged me, and I did press conferences at the Assembly in Cardiff Bay. I also organised the first mass rally of the Assembly in my capacity as president of Aberystwyth Guild of Students.
Where I am from, I would never have considered joining the Conservative Party.
Did you intend to become an AM or public representative, or did it just happen?
I never intended to be an Assembly Member or even to join a political party.
I didn’t want to be put in a box, which at the time I felt being in a political party entailed. I wanted to be free to have my own opinions.
I think now that in a political party you can have your own opinions and be prepared to debate them, but I didn’t realise that at the time.
In 2005, when I was working for Plaid MEP Jill Evans, I had a serious car crash on Rhigos Mountain that made me realise I wasn’t going to be young forever. I didn’t think being an AM was the be-all and end-all, but I realised that I might not be here tomorrow, so why not go for something if I’m passionate about it and try my best? I put my name forward to be an AM to campaign on the issues I feel passionate about.
The rewards have to outweigh the frustrations or I wouldn’t do it. Politics can be frustrating. But that is outweighed by the campaigns we run and the people we can help. And by inspiring people in the local area to do their own thing by helping them and showing them they can change things by their actions.
What do you think are the most important political issues facing AMs and parties in Wales at present?
The economic situation is the most pressing, especially given the budget constraints we face as an Assembly and not being able to vary taxation or having the flexibility to change budgets given the constraints being put on us by the Coalition Government.
In my heritage and media portfolio, I am concerned about the cuts at S4C and the 20 per cuts being lined up at BBC Wales – that is something I want to push. We have just had the referendum on greater powers for Wales, yet the media in Wales is facing potential decimation, which would be a tragedy.
This office set up the economic forum for South Wales West. We tried to put in place schemes that would help young people, people who were trying to access workplace learning, who were suffering because they couldn’t get to the workplace learning or because they had been on benefits or homeless for some time. Then there was the stigma factor – businesses not wanting to work with these young people.
What are the issues in Wales you want to raise the profile of?
I am still interested in international issues. I know we haven’t got the powers in Wales, but I was involved in the peace movement at Aberystwyth, and keep my interest in that going. I set up a cross-party human rights group, taking up the rights of asylum seekers, Palestine, and so on. It is important for us as citizens of Wales. If we want to grow up to be a proper parliament with real stature, we have to look out and represent other people in the world as well as the citizens of Wales.
How would you/Plaid address the growing democratic deficit arising from the crisis in local media provision in Wales?
I am trying to organise a day at the Assembly on Monday, July 11, when people can come along and have some input into the ideas I am putting forward as heritage spokesperson for Plaid. That way I can show people I am representing them and not putting forward just my own ideas and priorities.
I have been speaking to staff at the BBC and S4C about the difficulties there. I would like to look at how we grow indigenous news outlets in areas like South West Wales and take up the issue of funding, in particular how grants can be much more flexible in providing support to those people who are keen on having very local news which isn’t represented in the Western Mail or other big outlets.
Outside politics, what interests you?
My outside interests are not as extensive as I would like. I enjoy going to the gym, and intend to buy a bike to use on the new Sustrans cycle tracks around the area where I live.
I like to read and have started to write poetry – my father was a poet, and I used to write a lot earlier in my life. I find it a good way of unwinding and escaping from daily pressures. I haven’t had anything published yet, but I won awards at school and had some book reviews published.
I like political thrillers like John Le Carre, with a bit more analysis. I also like Irish writers and non-fiction about Ireland – my mother is Irish.
I play viola and use to play in a band, and I play in an orchestra in Swansea when I have the time. The band was very eclectic with jazz and other influences, but veered mainly towards folk. My musical taste varies from the Manics to Muse, and female singers like Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone.
What advice do you have for any young person interested in getting involved in politics?
Young people don’t set out necessarily to get involved in party politics. When I was 18 and going to university, it was the Iraq war and campaigning against tuition fees that inspired me and inspired many other young people to become politically active.
The current anti-capitalist and student protests are inspiring now. I would say to young people, get involved in the issues and campaigns you feel passionately about, and if you want to get involved in party politics after that then all well and good.