Harry Thompson takes a look at the current landscape of Welsh politics, and where the main parties stand in the wake of the local elections.
The dust has settled and Wales’ latest set of elections is in the history books. An overhead view of the elections is that of a good night (or rather, day after) for Welsh Labour, a continuation of Wales’ history of electing independent councillors, a mixed result for Plaid Cymru, and a somewhat-heartening one for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, despite finishing fifth and sixth respectively.
An overhead analysis of local elections will always miss some of the most crucial elements of why people vote. In my past life as a campaign organiser, I worked with candidates in supposed no-hope wards whose sheer hard work and determination to talk to and help as many people as possible drove them over the line.
Wales’ relatively small and inconsistent local authorities are the subject of frequent ire – whether over the division of employee expertise between a larger number of authorities or over the small electoral wards which are all-too-often uncontested. However, one positive feature that is mentioned far less is the ability of local politicians to be truly close to their electorate. It is far easier for politicians in wards with smaller populations to get around and talk to everyone, and to take up the issues of their constituents personally.
I suspect this is one reason for greater numbers of independents in Wales – it is easier to take on party machines in smaller wards. There is also a positive incentive to work hard, with a disproportionate impact in getting to know people and taking on their casework and issues compared to larger wards and constituencies. I have known candidates who know everyone in their local community through working in the local post office for years, who spent have spent endless evenings having long conversations with every postal voter they could reach (who have a hugely disproportionate turnout at these elections in particular), and have even seen successful weight loss programmes achieved via knocking every door in the community.
With the proviso that it is impossible to factor in years of differential community work, filled or unfilled potholes, cycle lanes, school closures and more – here is where the parties stand after the elections from a national perspective.
This was a good election for Welsh Labour. Such is the dominance of the reds in Wales that even a bad election, such as 2017, is still a good election – they remain the largest party nationally in almost all circumstances. But this was more than just standing still, with Welsh Labour winning the most seats of any party, including more gains than the other parties combined.
The Conservatives face an uphill battle in holding their ‘red wall’ marginals from the 2019 General Election
Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Torfaen, Caerphilly, and Rhondda Cynon Taf all stayed within Welsh Labour majority control – not an insubstantial chunk of Wales’ population and economic base. They took Blaenau Gwent from the independents and recovered Bridgend from no overall control.
With an eye to other elections, the win in Bridgend provides Labour with a positive foreshadowing of any future general election result. So too in north east Wales, where they have followed up their near-whitewash of marginal seats in last year’s Senedd elections with more vital wins in key seats. At this specific point in time – and things can change – the Conservatives face an uphill battle in holding their ‘red wall’ marginals from the 2019 General Election.
It wasn’t just in more traditional Labour heartlands that the party made gains, either. In Cardiff North, the prime battleground was the four Conservative seats in Whitchurch and Tongwynlais, which turned red with such ferocity that the final result wasn’t even particularly close. In the Vale of Glamorgan, the Conservatives, having come just short of a majority in 2017, were not too long ago hoping to run the authority alone after this election. In the end it was Welsh Labour who came just short of a majority, with 25 of the 28 seats required (the Conservatives ended on 13). Welsh Labour also came close to taking the only jewel in the Welsh Conservative local government crown, Monmouthshire, where they are now the largest party.
The only dark spot for the party was Neath Port Talbot – where the party dramatically fell from 43 seats to just 25. This was largely due to the large rise in independents, where there are now 18.
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Despite the NPT result, this was a comprehensive victory for Welsh Labour. The BBC was evidently more interested in the English and Scottish elections, which has obscured the scale of the result. Despite this, post-Senedd 2021 election assertions by some that Britain is now an island of three national parties – Conservative England, nationalist Scotland, and Labour Wales – are strengthened by this result.
The main story of this round of local elections was the poor performance of the Welsh Conservatives. They lost around 44% of their councillors in Wales, including a comprehensive loss in their only majority-run council, Monmouthshire. They went backwards in the traditional Labour areas such as Bridgend and the north-east in which they made their much-lauded gains in 2019. Traditional marginals such as Cardiff North ejected Conservative councillors in favour of Labour ones with decent majorities, and they collapsed in the Vale of Glamorgan. An ominous number of Conservative MPs in marginals have now seen their seats elect Labour Senedd members and councils in the time since their own election.
The Welsh Conservatives did not lose nearly half of their sitting councillors solely to local issues. UK politics were on voter’s minds, with the cost of living and Boris Johnson’s lockdown law-breaking clearly costing them dearly.
A political sense of Welshness is here to stay, and a powerful Senedd along with it
There is a wider issue for the Welsh Conservatives, though, than these temporary scandals. It is their inability to weather them. When Welsh Labour were contending with UK-level governance being a drag on their support, they filled the Severn with clear red water, and when Corbyn’s leadership proved unpopular with their core vote, they put pro-business Carwyn Jones on every piece of election literature they could manage. Welsh Labour is a strong brand predicated on patriotism and leader recognition. It ‘stands up for Wales’, and in these elections the leader visits as many marginal wards as possible. Opposition parties in marginal wards find themselves facing a Labour candidate with a written endorsement and personal visit to the local high street or village hall from the leader of the country, as visible as Boris Johnson and perhaps more so than Keir Starmer.
The Welsh Conservatives have eschewed the chance to create an independent brand, instead deciding on a role as active cheerleaders of nearly all UK Government decisions. This has cost them the opportunity to build a visible leadership that attempts to gain widespread popularity in Wales, a bulwark against UK-brand scandal and unpopularity as Welsh Labour did in the New Labour and Corbyn years, and has denied them the opportunity to take policy decisions that are popular with the electorate they are attempting to appeal to. The Welsh Conservatives have instead locked themselves into supporting scandals such as partygate, placing themselves in one of the most constitutionally unpopular positions of devoscepticism, and supporting policy formulated to appeal to voters of a different demographic make-up to the ones they are asking to vote for them.
As the UK Labour party has been taught many times in its past, parties that do not accept the same reality as voters are punished. The Welsh Conservatives may yearn for a pre-devolution era where decisions are only taken on a UK basis which allows them to simply support UK-level strategy and be rewarded for it with power at a UK level, but those days are over. A political sense of Welshness is here to stay, and a powerful Senedd along with it.
Welsh Labour have a policy offering on public services, the economy, and the constitution that is designed to appeal to the different demographics, income levels, and constitutional and political beliefs that exist in Wales. The Welsh Conservatives have simply ceded this ground to their opponents, pursuing instead a core vote strategy that has borne some fruit but has ultimately locked them out of power in a devolved governance system that is here to stay.
A year after Welsh Labour celebrated its sixth successive Senedd election win, nearly half of Welsh Conservative councillors have lost their positions due to UK Government unpopularity they had an opportunity to differentiate themselves from but chose instead to tie themselves to. One of their representatives has described this result as brutal and called for a unique Welsh vision. It will likely not act on creating a Welsh Conservative brand until MPs – still the power brokers in the Welsh party – begin to lose their seats, but the loss of nearly half of their councillors in one day can certainly be taken as a flashing early warning light.
If the party desires to actually win elections and make decisions – something it is so ruthlessly focused on at Westminster level – then it is in desperate need of a Welsh Clause IV moment. If it continues to refuse to compromise with a wider strand of the Welsh electorate, Welsh Labour will continue to dominate.
This was a strange election for Plaid Cymru. The party is undeniably more powerful as a result of the election than it was beforehand, gaining majorities in Ynys Môn, Ceredigion, and Carmarthenshire, which were all previously in no overall control. It successfully held its majority in Gwynedd, previously the only local authority it controlled outright. Fitness permitting, it is now possible to walk from Wales’s southern coastline to Wales’s northern-most point without leaving a Plaid Cymru council.
However, it has failed to make in-roads in the valley communities it has long aspired to win, being as they are leftist-voting, Welsh-identifying communities whose population makes them the power-brokers of Welsh politics. In the Rhondda, which it once ran and where former leader Leanne Wood once so famously won at Senedd level, it lost more than half of its seats. Plaid Cymru also continues to be nearly entirely absent from our cities. The BBC’s notional results calculations state that Plaid Cymru made a net loss of councillors overall, despite its success in getting over the line in achieving majorities in certain councils.
Despite a sixth recent election win, the Welsh Labour electoral machine does not appear to be running out of steam
Soul-searching is not new to Plaid Cymru, and these results will only add fuel to that particular fire. The party is clearly not making anything like the progress it would need to gain the Senedd majority it once coveted, with the profile of the office of First Minister and an independence referendum the party’s ultimate goal.
There are many who now question whether this even matters. In the Senedd – the arena the party cares about the most – Plaid has successfully positioned itself as a constructive partner for Welsh Labour. Welsh Labour has never gained a majority in the Senedd itself, but an implicit and explicit deal between the parties has now become clearer than ever under Adam Price’s leadership. Welsh Labour is able to command an effective super-majority in the Senedd for its domestic policy agenda and Plaid Cymru is able to ensure the Welsh Government is fully in support of its nation-building goals. In this perhaps-Faustian bargain, both parties have changed part of their souls – Welsh Labour is now a party committed to strong devolution and Welsh nation-building, and Plaid Cymru is now a party committed to supporting Welsh Labour’s policy ideology.
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The recent deal between the parties on Senedd reform tells this story. Plaid Cymru has successfully become an instrumental part of guiding Wales from a country split on supporting an Assembly with less influence than a local council, towards a country with widespread support for a Welsh Parliament, which will have 96 members with primary law-making powers and policy exercised by an increasingly confident, if under-resourced, Welsh Government. In doing so, it has perhaps signed away its ability to ever win a majority in that Parliament (likely needed for a Welsh independence referendum) by signing up to a more anti-majoritarian electoral system, and by tying itself so closely to a government that it ostensibly seeks to replace.
Overall, these local elections fit into a pattern that has emerged before it, and will likely continue afterwards. Despite a sixth recent election win, the Welsh Labour electoral machine does not appear to be running out of steam, and the other parties are adapting around that fact.
The Welsh Conservative lack of a distinct brand and commitment to a core vote strategy of holding the UK Government as close as possible has harmed them in marginal areas, as it did in the 2021 Senedd election, and Plaid Cymru appear to have decided to prioritise influencing Welsh Labour over attacking and replacing them. This is borne out in the electoral geography of these recent results – Welsh Labour’s main threat at a local authority level is not other parties but bands of independents, with a widespread geographic electoral coalition of its core south Wales valleys and north east Wales seats, as well as an increasing dominance in cities, and signs that areas such as Monmouthshire are being pulled into its sphere of influence.
The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, remained as penned into their Welsh heartlands as their respective strategies would imply. This is where Welsh politics and governance now stands and it appears a political earthquake would be needed to change it.
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