Saturday, 5 May 2012

What did we learn from the local elections?

Nobody cared – Turnout across the board seems to be atrocious, and quite similar to last year's referendum turnout. In hindsight, that probably makes the referendum turnout look a lot better than it was. This might've given Labour a boost, but I don't think it all comes down to turnout. It's a real shame, but I'm not really surprised anymore. Politics is becoming a massive turn-off for many people - for whatever reason - and it's going to be an uphill struggle to try and get them back.

People are fed up with austerity – That's not to say Labour wouldn't be doing similar if they were in the same position as the Coalition. The media turned this into a referendum on the Coalition - and it certainly helped Labour - though I'm sure local factors came into play as well in some cases. In the midst of a double-dip, you would hope that the UK Government will rethink their deficit reduction plans, perhaps focusing on developing infrastructure to boost competitiveness in all parts outside London. Easier said than done.

Decapitation! - One thing that really stood out was how many council leaders lost their seat, or came close to losing their seats - for all parties. Some really significant players are gone. Russell Roberts in RCT will make the headlines, but the one that stood out is the Lib Dem's Rodney Berman in Cardiff. He might have come across as slightly haughty and smug, but I don't really see what he did wrong. He always appeared to be a pretty decent figurehead for the city.

Is that "sending a message"? Or is it something more personal? Do the Welsh dislike "Big Time Charlies"? It would make elected mayor scenarios very interesting indeed.

Bridgend at a glance

Detailed results are available here.

Labour                 39 (+12)
Independents       10 (-4)
Lib Dems               3 (-3)
Conservatives        1 (-5)
Plaid Cymru           1 (n/c)

Congratulations to those who've been re-elected or newly elected. Commiserations to those who missed out this time around or who lost their seats.

My predictions weren't that far off all in all. Labour did slightly better than expected, taking seats in many of the wards I dubbed "too close to call" quite comfortably, along with others. They had a particularly excellent result in Brackla, taking all four seats.

Despite Labour's successes, there were still a few shocks. Alana Davies - a cabinet member - bucked the county trend and lost her Porthcawl seat to an Independent. Several long-serving councillors also lost their seats, such as : the Hacking's in Brackla, Bob Burns in Oldcastle and David Unwin in Newcastle. Peter Foley also came within 7 votes of losing his seat in Morfa.

The Lib Dems got off lightly it seems – in fact I think they'll be secretly "happy" with their performance, keeping 3 seats. The Independent vote held up remarkably well across the county. In many wards, Plaid were standing for the first time and gave a reasonable account of themselves, without really excelling.

It seemed to be the Conservatives who really suffered in Bridgend, losing 5 of their 6 seats. That's a pretty miserable performance for a party that has a decent base in the southern half of the county. What went wrong there?

Party by party national analysis


Was 2011 a high tide mark?

Losing overall control of Monmouthshire borders on incompetence. As mentioned before, they took a real hammering in Bridgend and even worse hammerings in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. However, it looks as though they held up reasonably well in north Wales and they still have a respectable number of councillors across Wales as a whole.

Pressure will be starting to pile on Andrew Davies. He hasn't seemed to capture the imagination of the public, the Conservatives are in serious danger of undoing all of the good work Nick Bourne did in "detoxifying" the brand, there seem to be serious organisation issues within the party and they are guilty by association with regard the UK Coalition. If they can create a clear narrative within the Assembly, they'll be able to turn things around, but it's increasingly looking like an uphill struggle. For those reasons, this is a worse result than they are making out.


It was always on the cards – a tremendous night for Labour in Wales. They pretty much recovered most - if not all - of their 2008 losses, retaking the major urban areas of Wales and the Valley authorities. Labour picked up seats from every single opposition party, and the independents, without breaking too much of a sweat. Depending on the result of the by-election in Gwynedd, Labour are now the only party in overall control of any Welsh local authority.

Cardiff will be the feather in their cap, but I think they'll be delighted to have a massive stranglehold on Caerphilly, RCT, Bridgend and NPT as well as thumping swings from the Tories in the Vale of Glamorgan. It was a great performance across the board.

Did Wales "send the Westminster Coalition a message"? Not really. Not even Ed Milliband will really care that the Valleys have turned red again. The Midlands and the south of England will be the main battleground in 2015, but it helps the cause to know that there'll be a fair few Labour MP's returned from Wales as usual.

The focus on Westminster issues, at least at the top level, played its part in victory once again. They won't be able to do that forever, though. Two words – hospital reorganisations.

Liberal Democrats

An embarrassing result in Cardiff, and real leatherings in Wrexham, Newport and Swansea. But less so elsewhere. At a local level, they are an effective party and to be fair, always have been. They are clearly paying the price for their perceived mistakes at UK level. Did they deserve that? Probably not, but it's easier to kick the junior partner in a coalition. They seemed resigned to fate in these elections, losing candidates through simple withdrawal or defections.

Maybe it's time for some of the more prominent Lib Dems to stop highlighting every minor "success" or "concession" they get in Westminster and focus more on what they can do in Wales.

Plaid Cymru

A bad night, but nowhere near as bad as it could've been. When austerity bites, people run back to Daddy Labour. Parties like Plaid - that compete largely on the same ground - will be squeezed out. The results in Caerphilly, Cardiff and Neath Port Talbot do require addressing and a significant rebuilding on the ground. The results in Rhondda Cynon Taf will likely be embarrassing to Leanne Wood on a personal level.

However, aside from the disappointment, there's a bit of hope there. Their core vote turned out - especially in the "heartland". Also, on the surface of it, it looks as though Plaid's overall share of the vote won't have dipped anywhere near as much as the Tories or Lib Dems. There's no need to be too downbeat really, but Plaid are going to have to become more than a party that thrives when Labour are unpopular. How they do that is a hard question to answer.

Independents & Minor Parties

Is the "age of the independent" over in Welsh local politics? Not quite, but they took a hit in most parts of the country. They do, however, remain in firm control of Pembrokeshire, and still hold sway in many other authorities. I think the question many people are starting to ask themselves is – what do independents actually stand for? Is it right that they can form a group and get away with not having a manifesto or a set of aims?

Should they be forced to form a registered party if they have over X number of seats? Perhaps, should registered independents be banned from forming political groups?

None of the "other" parties appear to have made much headway in Wales. The Green campaign has been an abject failure. I'm genuinely surprised they didn't pick up seats in Cardiff, as they've been quite vocal on local planning and transport issues in the city for many years now.

There were no far-right or far-left successes. I don't think the likes of the BNP or the National Front will ever make even a minor impact on Welsh politics the way things are going. That pleases me.

UKIP appear to have kept the seat that they had, and added one. The UKIP situation will be one to watch on a UK-wide level. Could they be emerging as a major player on the populist right, but without the "racist" baggage? That would be an interesting development, and would cause a headache for the Tories, and perhaps even Labour in some parts of England, if they can convince enough white, working-class voters to jump ship.


  1. so what was going on in Nant-y-moel and Ogmore Vale??

  2. Thanks for the comment Marion.

    Those were two very interesting results I forgot to mention. I'm sure Labour will be bemused as to how they happened, along with Alana Davies's result in Porthcawl. Independents also did surprisingly well in Pyle. Pehaps these areas feel particularly neglected by Labour - I'm sure Porthcawl does especially - or it simply came down to solid local candidates. It doesn't really change the bigger picture.

  3. A good run-down.
    Also a tremendous night for the younger Labour candidates in Bridgend - myself (Maesteg West), Alex Owen (Penprysg) and Hailey Townsend in Brackla. Three County Councillors under the age of 30!

  4. I might not be too enamoured with Labour personally, but it's always good to see more people around my age in politics at a local and national level. Congratulations!

  5. Decent analysis Owen. The only part I don't agree with is where you say about the Tories that "it looks as though they held up reasonably well in north Wales". They lost quite badly in north Wales in terms of going down in seats, whereas Plaid held up and Labour made gains.

    I think the Tories were expecting to make gains off Plaid in the north, hence Andrew RT Davies' appeal to "soft Plaid" voters. But the Tories aren't yet a convincing alternative to Plaid in those areas. You could apply the same thing to Ceredigion. Gareth Jones coming back for Plaid in Conwy is a good sign, as was Phil Edwards and Abdul Khan increasing their majorities.

    With that said there are bigger problems for the Tories than not taking seats off Plaid. Losing seats to Labour especially in Conwy and Denbighshire is a big problem for them. Plaid will probably hold on to their bits and pieces in the north outside of Gwynedd even when they are down in the dumps, but it isn't so long ago that Conwy was a Labour-held seat.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Anon.

    On closer inspection, I'd probably adjust what I said to "the Tories did worse in south Wales than north Wales." In addition to your points on Tory losses in Conwy and Denbighshire, they also took a hammering in the Vale of Glamorgan, which was a real surprise for a whole host of reasons. It all hints towards a big swing against them.

    That's not to say Plaid shouldn't become complacent in the short to medium term. It was still, overall, a bad night for Plaid too.

  7. Definitely a bad night for Plaid but it's relevant to the Tories that they have been unable to take seats off Plaid. I'm not saying this is because Plaid has done well, it's because the Tories have done badly in government. As part of analysing the Conservatives in Wales the failure of this strategy needs to be looked at. It is possible that their Welshification agenda has not gone far enough.

    On blog Menai a comment illustrates this-

    "At the Welsh Tory Conference at the start of the local government election campaign, the Tory leadership targeted the Plaid vote in the west and the north.

    ‘I say directly to those who have voted Plaid in the past: If you are a patriot, if you're proud of your community, if you're proud of your heritage and your culture and your language, then your beliefs are our beliefs in the Welsh Conservative Party’. Andrew RT Davies, Sunday, 25 March 2012

    ‘I hope that Plaid Cymru voters see in the Welsh Conservative Party a great alternative’. Cheryl Gillan, Secretary of State.

    The result. Plaid 158 Councillors. Tories 105.
    • In every seat contested in Gwynedd, the Tories came last!
    • A very similar pattern was seen in Carmarthenshire.
    • Some of the more abysmal Tory performances that evening however came in Ceredigion. Three Tory candidates failed to secure 20 votes ; at Penparcau (16), Padarn (19) and Sulien (19). Another two just about went past the 20 mark - Rheidol (22) and Aberystwyth Central (22). Another at Aberystwyth North somehow reached 29 votes."

  8. Thanks Anon.

    The best Tory strategy would've been to target those on the right of the Lib Dems/"Orange Book" Lib Dems. I imagine they are pretty thin on the ground in Wales though.

    The fact remains though that the Tories have a pretty solid core vote that for some reason didn't turn out when they needed them. I don't think that's down to Andrew Davies personally, but something is going wrong within the Welsh Tories. They need something unique, and I actually think that thing is David Melding's federalism.

  9. Agree, very good comment. The Tory core vote in Wales is loyal and will always hover around 20%. I don't imagine many of them actually know Andrew RT Davies but I can't see that he is bringing any dynamism to the role. I think with David Melding's federalism the core vote wouldn't mind it at all and it could gain new voters, depending on how much it represented a break with the past.

    Apart from this blip they have been doing quite well in recent years and building up a gradual base, but it isn't getting them into power any time soon. They need some kind of spark or USP to elevate them above that.

  10. Observing from “across the pond” what happened in Cardiff did not surprise me, I had warned if the Liberals (AKA Lib Dems) lost cardiff Central I said they would lose Cardiff itself (probably not such a prophetic prediction but one they were complacent about). I am sorry that many decent councillors lost their seats over a message that really was irrelevant to their calling (send a message from the original Young Liberal and Godfather of Community politics). The cardiff Liberals gained Central as their jewel in the crown but forgot that Cardiff is more than that. Plaid’s results were also tragic, but it was going to be hard for Neil McEvoy especially with the hostility of his current leader, despite all the smiles, Cardiff was just not a Plaid priority, along with a barmy voting system (FPTP), If I was part of the opposition in the Senedd I would be starting a bill introducing PR in local elections.. Though the one silver lining in Cardiff was a 57% turnout in Rhiwbina for the independents with 70% of the vote, that speaks volumes for Jane Cowan, Adrian Robson, and Elenor Sanders that is the highest turnout I have ever seen for a local election.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Michael.

    I think it was inevitable that the Lib Dems would lose big in Cardiff, but I don't think many people will have expected that big a backlash. In all honesty they hadn't done that bad a job - yeah they've made some huge mistakes, but they seem to have had some sort of vision and ambition for Cardiff at least, even if parts were pie in the sky.

    As I understand it some Welsh academics are now calling for STV in local elections, but I think it'll be nigh on impossible to get Labour to agree to that for obvious reasons. It would have to be a cross-party agreement. I could see them perhaps agreeing to a form similar to the Assembly elections, with a mix of FPTP and D'Hondt top-up members at local level.

    A 57% turnout in a local election is truly excellent, but there's something sad that we're saying something like that. Ideally it'll be 70-80% consistantly, or even 100% with an abstain option. A new voting system where "every vote matters" might make a difference, but until some faith is restored to politics, getting people to polling stations is going to be an uphill struggle over the long term.

  12. Here's a comment on the farce that is FPTP in local authority elections:

  13. Thanks for the additional comment penartharbyd.

    The election system at a local level in Wales is definitely broken. I don't say that because I might be biased towards Plaid. I just think it creates mini rotten borough, especially in large, rural local authorities.

    The margins in FPTP local wards might depend on a swing of literally tens of votes, so in theory it should keep councillors on their toes, but it doesn't obviously.

    I'd prefer something like D'Hondt used in larger, multi-member wards as it's easier for the public to to understand than STV as you mention on your blog (not that there's anything inherently wrong with STV).