In the second of our series of articles looking ahead to the May 2012 elections, Tom Harris and Harry Hayfield preview the Welsh local council elections.
The whole of Wales was scheduled to have council elections take place on Thursday, May 3rd, however one council, which has a habit of bucking trends, will be giving this one a miss.
The Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) has a history of bitter political infighting which came to a head last year when it became the first council in the UK to have its executive functions taken over by a group of commissioners.
Part of the recommendations to resolve the situation was a restructuring of the electoral arrangements on the island and a move to multi-member wards, so this year’s elections have been postponed until May 2013 so they can be implemented.
Fortunately for us, the other 21 councils in Wales will be holding elections this year and the only thing that can be confidently predicted is that they will be unpredictable.
Huge swaths of the country have a strong tradition of independent councillors and in these areas the main three political parties are generally uncompetitive, or non-existent, at a local level. As such it is difficult to extrapolate a lot of what happens in Welsh local elections to anywhere other than the part of Wales where they are actually taking place, although plenty try.
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Powys and Pembrokeshire are the two best examples of Wales’s independent streak, whilst in Carmarthenshire and Gwynedd, Plaid Cymru’s main challengers in council elections comes from localised parties and non-aligned candidates. In Ceredigion the Liberal Democrats do have a degree of success but independents still outnumber them going into these elections.
For anyone not wholly familiar with the geography of Wales those five counties are essentially the Mid & West Wales Assembly Region; so a majority of the country, geographically.
The majority of the country population-wise is in the southern part of Wales, The Valleys. This is one of the strongest regions for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; they currently hold 20 of the 23 Parliamentary seats in the region and all the Assembly constituencies.
However, in the 2008 council elections Labour had a torrid time in its Welsh heartlands and having lost around 70 seats in The Valleys they emerged holding around 40% of council seats in the area. This historically poor result saw them lose control of councils like Blaenau Gwent, Newport and Torfaen, which had returned Labour majorities ever since the restructure of local government in Wales in the mid-nineties.
These losses were down to a variety of reasons, not least the general view in South Wales that the Labour government was not doing enough for them, perhaps even taking them for granted. The best example of this is the People’s Voice movement that developed in Blaenau Gwent after the constituency party had an all-woman shortlist imposed on them for the 2005 general election.
Peter Law, the then Labour AM for Blaenau Gwent, left the party, ran against the official candidate as an independent in protest, and won; handily. He wasn’t the only one to resign over the perceived meddling and following his death in 2006, the People’s Voice, as they were now organised as, held the Parliamentary by-election and his widow, Trish, won the Assembly by-election, even holding the seat at the 2007 elections.
In the 2008 local elections the People’s Voice did just enough to scupper Labour’s chances of keeping control of Blaenau Gwent and neighbouring Torfaen but since then things have unravelled for the fledgling party. After losing the Parliamentary seat in 2010 they didn’t stand in 2011 Assembly elections. It seems the party is soldiering on but Labour will be expecting to recover these councils in May.
Elsewhere, they will be hoping to regain ground lost in Lib Dem-led Cardiff and to Plaid Cymru in Caerphilly, as well as retaking control of Newport and Merthyr Tydfil.
Wedged between England and The Valleys is the Conservative stronghold of Monmouthshire, which they’ll have no trouble holding onto. The Tories also currently control the Vale of Glamorgan, which is by far their best council prospect in The Valleys, but a net loss of two seats here would see the authority slip back into No Overall Control.
These elections will be an interesting test for Plaid Cymru. They had a fairly strong night in 2008, gaining 31 seats, so they will be hoping to consolidate those advances. Many of thir successes were in The Valleys, and the recent election of the non-Welsh speaker Leanne Wood as their leader could help them appeal to South Wales voters.
However, they may be at risk of losing support in their Welsh speaking heartlands to localised parties so it will be a big night for the new Plaid leader.
If North Wales was in England then it would be prime Conservative territory, and if it were in South Wales Labour would very much fancy their chances. However, North Wales is in North Wales, and so although the two main parties do much better here than in central areas of the country, independents and, to a lesser extent, Plaid Cymru, are also very competitive.
This mix makes it virtually impossible for any party to secure a majority; Conwy and Denbighshire have been in No Overall Control since the restructure in 1995, as has Wrexham since 1999. If any region the United Kingdom could teach the rest of the country about coalitions then this is it; Denbighshire is currently controlled by a grand coalition of all the parties on the council.
Flintshire bucks the trend here having been under Labour control up until 2008, which reflects the council’s proximity to the strong Labour area of Liverpool. However, the swing away from then in 2008 has left them with a lot of ground to make up; a net gain of 13 to be precise.
The Liberal Democrats in Wales, as in England, have been competitive in different areas for very different reasons. The tradition of Liberalism in Powys and Ceredigion has seen many Liberal Democrat (and their predecessor) MPs returned to Parliament but that does not really convert into council seats due to the success of independents on these councils.
In recent years the Lib Dems have managed to make inroads in university towns and cities in Wales, even becoming the largest party on Cardiff council in 2008, but despite the fact education is a devolved policy area they should be expecting a bit of a backlash following the tuition fees rise. In last year’s Assembly elections they lost their sole constituency seat in South Wales, Cardiff Central, and struggled to replace it on the list.
So as you can see, local politics in Wales is a veritable mixed bag with similar regions acting completely differently. All four of the main political parties in Wales are likely to spring surprises in areas, but get disappointed with results in others; the surprise of the night would be evidence of a uniform swing across the country.
Labour should reverse the recent trend of decline, and the Liberal Democrats are likely to struggle in the southern cities, but beyond that just sit back and enjoy the fascinatingly idiosyncratic nature of elections in Wales. Oh, and try to resist the temptation to plug any of the swings into a House of Commons seat calculator!
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