Sunday, 9 April 2017

Locals 2017: Councils to Watch


Before I turn to what individual parties should expect in the local elections in May, it's worth looking at councils  likely to provide hotly-contested polls (in alphabetical order).


Caerphilly
(Pic : Wales Online)

Normally this would be a straight fight between Labour and Plaid Cymru for top dog position, but both face a challenge from UKIP and a small group of Independents headed up by former Labour anti-devolution campaigner, Nigel Dix.

The council has been caught up in a long-running saga revolving senior officer pay and neither Labour or Plaid come out of it untarnished but, as the incumbents, you would expect Labour to face the brunt of it, with Plaid picking up seats here and there.

I suppose whether Labour retain overall control depends on where the populist/anti-politics vote goes – UKIP or Independent.

Following some very strong results in the Assembly election in the region last May, UKIP now have a "heartland" and if they're going to get any big results in May it'll probably happen in the Gwent valleys; by my count they've put up 11 candidates in Caerphilly and you would expect Sam Gould to be elected at the very least. However, FPTP combined with crowded candidate lists make it more difficult for UKIP as there's no proportional representation to give them a leg-up.


Cardiff


All eyes will be on the capital and it could provide top-billing entertainment on May 4th.

Next to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, Cardiff has been the most dysfunctional local authority in Wales. Some meetings have verged on punch-ups, while the Labour party's internal problems have provided stream after stream of bad headlines, defections, resignations and staggering incompetence – exemplified by the new bus station saga. Yet, somehow, Labour have done well in by-elections and I wouldn't at all be surprised if they remained the largest group. Cockroaches and nuclear attacks come to mind.

In terms of the challengers, it depends on where in the city you are. In the north it'll probably come from the Conservatives and Independents. In the centre and east from a combination of Lib Dems, Greens and Independents and in the west and south from Plaid Cymru.

Indeed, this election will be a bellwether for how the Lib Dems are recovering. They were publicly de-pantsed in 2012 after the sole hope for a good result in last year's Assembly election failed to materialise (Eluned Parrott). We live in a different Wales now though and if they can capitalise on the strong local Remain vote, as well as Labour's disorganisation, they could be on the brink of a major comeback. Will it be enough to take control? I'm sceptical.

It's unlikely the Conservatives will make any major breakthrough beyond wards in the Cardiff North constituency (see My Cardiff North for more), but you would expect them to make gains and if the Lib Dems have a particularly bad night it's possible they could overtake them into second place.

The next party to focus on is Plaid Cymru. They're building a solid base in western Cardiff with Neil McEvoy's populist showboating. That certainly isn't going down well with everyone, but I'd expect it to bear results and a significant number of Plaid councillors could be returned in May – maybe as many as 7-10 from wards like Fairwater, Ely, Caerau, Canton, Riverside and Grangetown.

Seeing as you wouldn't expect UKIP to do anything in Cardiff, the joker in the pack are the Greens. You would expect "studentville" wards like Roath and Cathays to be heavily targeted – though they'll be touching toes with the Lib Dems. Ralph Cook was one of the two present Green councillors in Wales, though as he's subsequently defected to the Lib Dems it's difficult to see where a Green breakthrough will now come from.



Carmarthenshire


Y Cneifiwr continues to provide the most comprehensive coverage here. I've also said enough about this council over the past few years, so I won't tread over old ground.

This dysfunctional dictatorship is a continuing embarrassment to Wales. The National Assembly and Welsh Government have consistently failed in their duty to rein in the Executive Board's indulgence of the Chief Executive and have, subsequently, let Wales down big time.

None of the three main players – Plaid Cymru, Independents and Labour – have done enough to convince me any of them deserve to win. Nevertheless, in the absence of major local government reforms someone has to.

What Carmarthenshire needs is political stability and change at the top – both in terms of councillors, constitutional arrangements and senior officers. I'd even say that following the apparent reneging of his promise to return any damages from the Thompson case to CCC, Mark James (and Linda Rees-Jones) should be sacked if he doesn't walk (as are the rumours reported elsewhere). Any costs of the action can recovered from what would be an undoubtedly generous severence package....or, professional legal opinion dependent, they might have a case to sue for breach of contract.

Plaid will be favourites not only to be the largest party, but probably get a controlling majority. That's the least-worst outcome as they're the only party who can win seats in every part of the county and it would hopefully bring that political stability I mentioned; but Emlyn Dole and all those who "changed their minds" on the libel indemnity still have to go, with hints former AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas might be ready to step in should he get elected.

Labour are in such a mess at the moment, particularly in their Llanelli stronghold – due in part to the PR disaster of aligning themselves with UKIP and other assorted oddballs over the Llangennech school row - it would be an upset if Plaid didn't win outright control of Carmarthenshire. That doesn't mean Labour couldn't make advances, it's just the chances of them being the largest party are slimmer than Plaid.

It would be very like Plaid to miss open goals, but if they don't manage to get over the line there's a prospect of another round of three-way in-fighting. The Independents are likely to lose out the most, though many of the organ grinders are standing down. Maybe that'll present opportunities for a new cadre of "proper independents" to make a breakthrough, adding to (People First) Sian Caiach in the council chamber - but as Cneifiwr said earlier this week there's been a paperwork foul-up that might cause problems.

Conwy

Having always been one of the most politically diverse parts of the country, Conwy is currently run by an Independent-Plaid-Labour coalition.

The county leans towards the Conservatives and if there's any party that could realistically achieve a majority it's the Tories. However, in the last couple of weeks the Tories have suffered three defections to Independents, including someone who was considered a "rising star" (Julie Fallon). It's realistically going to be between the Conservatives and Independents for largest party, but this might swing things back in the Independents' favour.

The Lib Dems have a foothold, but since losing their most prominent local personality (Mike Priestley) to Labour, it's a familiar story of decline. There's no reason why Labour couldn't at the very least keep their current 10 seats.

Plaid do reasonably well in Conwy, but due to demographic changes their chances of being the biggest party have receded. They can still count on a big vote in the county's southern rural hinterland which is heavily Welsh-speaking. There's a big turnover in Plaid candidates with a number standing down – including the current Council Leader - losing the incumbency factor. I doubt that'll affect them too much though.




Rhondda Cynon Taf

(Pic : Wales Online)

At the moment it's a landslide in favour of Labour, with them holding 81% of the seats.

Plaid Cymru will be expected to do something big; by that I mean winning 20+ seats on top of the 9 they already hold. As it's Leanne Wood's back garden you would expect the party to heavily target wards in the Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach. However, the party once had a very strong presence in the Cynon Valley that's slowly disintegrated, while judging by what Glyn Morris at National Left hassaid, Plaid aren't putting up a strong showing in the southern Llantrisant/Pontyclun/Llanharry area either.

A green Rhondda and a red Pontypridd and Cynon Valley will be enough for Labour to keep control with Plaid advancing to a less distant second.

The interesting thing here will be the performance of the Cynon Valley Party – another hyperlocal party of Independents. I don't know how/why the party was established, but it's likely to be a similar story to Change for Bridgend and Newport Independents – disillusionment with party politics and/or people who are fed up with Labour in particular. If they can eat away at enough Labour votes to swing contests then maybe Labour won't have it all their own way after all.


Vale of Glamorgan

(Pic : penarthnews.wordpress.com)

This is going under the radar but worth keeping an eye on. The Vale usually swings between Labour and Conservative in parliamentary elections – often resulting in close contests - and until 2012 the Tories were the dominant force in local politics.

At the moment the council's run by a Labour-Independent coalition and Labour have an advantage in remaining strong in the two major urban centres of Barry and Penarth, which have a large number of small, multi-member wards.

The Conservatives rely on rural and semi-rural wards like Cowbridge, St Brides Major and Wenvoe. Llantwit Major has become a stronghold of Independents, while Plaid Cymru have been slowly building up a presence in Barry (alongside a traditionally strong base in Dinas Powys) and could pull of a few surprise results if they can go toe-to-toe with Labour in wards like Baruc, Buttrills and Castleland.

Then there's UKIP. They managed to win a seat (Kevin Mahoney in Sully) in 2012, but the councillor has since become Independent and is running under that banner. There are a few others running in other wards, but with the Vale-based Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew Davies AM, being vocal on Brexit, maybe that'll be enough to drag UKIP votes back to the Tories and swing a few contests in the Tory's favour.

The Vale is also in unique in having two Pirate Party candidates standing in St Athan and Castleland respectively. As only three candidates are standing in St Athan in total, we could see a record share of the vote for a Pirate candidate in Wales.

Wrexham

There've been big changes in Wrexham over the last few years. The single biggest development was a mass defection/resignation of Labour councillors because of a row over the future of the Plas Madoc leisure centre, which shifted control of the authority from Labour to Independents. It's a question of whether that position would be maintained and in the current climate I'm in no doubt it could be.

Labour will be desperate to retake control as it's become one of their prized northern strongholds – also home to two Cabinet Secretary constituencies - and its loss will have been an embarrassment.

There's been a significant increase in the number of Independents standing and if the non-Labour vote is split it could well help Labour (it wouldn't surprise me if, instead of being "Condependents", many Independent candidates are actually Labour by stealth for this very reason). Outright victory is probably within grasp for the Independents regardless.

The Lib Dems have a traditionally strong presence in the area and used to win double-figure number of seats – even out-polling Labour in 2008 – but that support has disintegrated. They would probably be pleased with keeping what they've already got. It's not exactly a Plaid Cymru stronghold either, but you would expect them to make one or two gains, probably at the expense of Labour.




Other local authorities to watch:

Anglesey – Plaid Cymru went close to taking control in 2013 having become largest party, but Independents and Labour kept them out of office. Judging by the performances of Plaid in recent elections you would expect them to get over the line and have a majority, but Anglesey always throws up surprises and the biggest surprise could be a Labour wipe-out on the island.

Bridgend – This won't rank highly up the list of most people's authorities to watch, but there are signs it's turning into a contest, even a nasty one in some cases. The smart money will be on Labour retaining overall control (or at least having the numbers to run the council as a minority group), but Independents look set to eat away at their vote following a bone-headed "purge" of Labour candidates and members last autumn (many of whom are now standing against The Party) as well as the establishment of the Change for Bridgend group - which has drawn support from all quarters. As you would expect I'll be taking a more detailed look at Bridgend over the remaining weeks of the campaign.

Neath Port Talbot – Like Bridgend, Labour should retain overall control, but Plaid Cymru will be looking to make significant gains after the resources thrown at the Aberavon constituency in recent elections. Plaid should be able to increase the number of seats by at least 50% (from 9 to 13/14) and there'll be questions asked if there aren't some gains. Also, there's been a similar Bridgend "purge" – a raft of Labour de-selections of veteran councillors creating Independents – which could spice things up in what would've otherwise been one of the more boring and predictable contests.

Swansea – Another bellwether for how the Lib Dems are recovering, though Labour are likely to end up on top at a reduced majority. The Conservatives, however, have managed to put up almost a full slate of candidates which is a surprise, while Plaid have managed to put up fewer council candidates in Swansea than Bridgend – another surprise. This is also one of the places you might expect the Greens to seriously compete for a seat.


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