Only one party in Wales has nothing to celebrate in the local election results, and one doesn’t need to be a political analyst to work out which that is. The Welsh Conservative Party has suffered a serious reverse, most notably by losing the single council it controlled with an overall majority. The loss of Monmouthshire County Council is a severe blow.
Its leader Richard John has been careful to distance his group from Boris Johnson and to promote itself as a progressive, One Nation form of compassionate Conservatism. In the wake of the loss, there were those in the party who blamed the loss on the decision of Cllr John and his colleagues to take the local party to the left. But in the context of what was happening elsewhere, such an explanation doesn’t seem plausible. There’s little doubt that voters were alienated by the issues that dominate domestic politics: the cost-of-living crisis, partygate and widespread disillusion with Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister.
In Wales, Labour undoubtedly had a good election, winning more seats and councils than it held before, while Plaid Cymru did better than expected, winning overall control in Anglesey, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion in addition to retaining their stronghold of Gwynedd. While it’s a small authority, Blaenau Gwent is a talisman council for Labour as the birthplace of the NHS when it was represented by party hero Aneurin Bevan. Later its MP was Labour leader Michael Foot.
For more than 15 years it has been the centre of turmoil since the late politician Peter Law became its Independent MP after being prevented from being the Labour candidate because of the imposition by the party of an all-women candidates’ shortlist. Labour has cemented itself as the dominant force in the capital, winning a comfortable overall majority in Cardiff, where it already holds all four constituencies at Senedd and Westminster.
The victory was especially sweet for Labour leader Huw Thomas, who has faced criticism over a range of issues including over-development, city centre disruption that has lasted for years and the continuing lack of a bus station. Apart from the disillusionment with Mr Johnson’s Westminster government, Labour has benefitted from the split nature of the opposition parties in Cardiff.
The Liberal Democrats, who ran the authority for eight years until 2012, have failed to regain the trust of the city’s left-leaning electorate after their UK party went into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. The Conservatives have failed to garner support beyond a diminishing core, while the Common Ground Alliance between Plaid Cymru and the Green Party failed to get the traction it was hoping. It did, however, win two seats.
Former Labour and Plaid Cymru councillor, and MS for South Wales Central, Neil McEvoy retained his seat in the capital’s Fairwater seat for the Propel party he set up after being expelled from Plaid Cymru, but he was the party’s only successful candidate in Wales.
Polling experts always warn that it’s dangerous to project council election results on to a future general election, but the Conservatives’ fall from first to fourth place in Denbighshire suggests that the constituencies it won in north east Wales when Mr Johnson secured an 80-seat majority will be vulnerable.
For Plaid Cymru, winning overall control of four councils is undoubtedly something to celebrate, although they are all in the party’s Welsh language heartlands. There was little evidence of Plaid making ground elsewhere, especially in Valleys authorities it has previously held. Winning nine seats in Wrexham was, however, a bonus that could be attributed to a hardworking local party.
The Liberal Democrats, while failing to make headway in urban seats, will be very pleased by their performance in Powys, where they have previously held seats at the Senedd and in Westminster.
Some results went against the grain. In Neath Port Talbot Labour lost overall control for the first time since local government reorganisation in the mid-1990s. Some local party activists said there was dissatisfaction on the doorstep with Neath MP Christina Rees. Independent candidates were the beneficiaries of Labour’s poor showing. As is often the case, some council leaders found themselves defeated. Four went this time – in Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire and Powys.
In the case of Labour’s losing leader in Caerphilly Philippa Marsden, the loss was spectacular – she got little more than 200 votes while the Independents who beat her and her party colleague polled more than five times as well. Ms Marsden’s defeat was down to local opposition to a waste plant – a reminder to all councillors that they can be vulnerable when residents in their ward turn against them over a local issue.
Taken together with the local election results in England, the outcomes amount to a strong warning to Mr Johnson about what may happen at the next general election. Labour did extremely well – and the Conservatives extremely badly – in London. Results from elsewhere in England may not have been quite so bad for the Tories, although it has to be remembered that in the vast majority of councils only one third of the seats were up for election.
The Liberal Democrats are a resurgent force in much of the south of England, where in many seats they are better placed to win seats from the Conservatives than Labour. It is no wonder that the Conservatives are already talking up the idea of an electoral pact between Labour and the Lib Dems as something that would be unfair.
Others would argue that such a development, which would always be informal and not entail candidates standing down, would be not so much unfair as an inevitable consequence of the “first past the post” voting system that the Conservatives insist on retaining because they benefit so much from it.