The party in charge of Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) could be run close in this year’s local government elections – but perhaps not by a conventional opposition group.
That is the belief among some council members, who say that Labour’s administration at BCBC could face serious competition from an upsurge in Bridgend County Independents-backed candidates.
However, the group insists that it is not a political party. In fact, the main position that many of their supported candidates take is that party politics too often gets in the way of local government.
So, who exactly are the Bridgend County Independents?
“Personally, [I think] standing as an independent is daunting and scary,” said one of the group’s founding members, Steven Bletsoe. “I have felt the isolation of it.”
Mr Bletsoe, a Bridgend Town Council member and the Mayor of Bridgend, said the County Independents act as a support network for prospective independent councillors who find navigating the legal and administrative complexities of becoming a councillor too much to manage on their own.
He added: “When a group like [Bridgend County Independents] can come together for a bit of support, I think that is a good thing.
“It doesn’t follow that those people will vote in the same way, but they can have shared experiences.”
Without any binding political philosophy to fall back on, it might be fair to ask just what, if anything, unites the independents.
For Mr Bletsoe, the appeal of becoming independent is largely about having the freedom to express differences in opinion without the risk of expulsion or punishment from a party whip.
He said: “One of the most important decisions that the town council makes is the precept. [Independent member] Steve Eastbrook and I had different views on that. I still stand on doorsteps with him. There is room for debate.
“I have gone into meetings with a predisposed opinion on a [certain] matter and then I have listened to the view of a different councillor and changed my decision.
“I changed my mind through debate. That is what should be happening on all of the issues.”
On the type of people who turn to the County Independents for support, Mr Bletsoe said: “We have an extremely broad church. We have people who voted for and against Brexit, but [we] never let it get in the way.
“[There is] no political ideology that dictates what the core message is. The Labour supporters call us Tories in disguise and the Conservatives say that we are more likely to support Labour motions. They cannot assign that tag to us. It confuses our opponents.
“The general public are sick of that kind of politics. They want to understand more about the people who are standing.”
Read more about some of the key pledges that independent candidates running in Bridgend have made here.
When asked his thoughts on party politics, Mr Bletsoe said he believed there could be a place for it at local government level as long as it doesn’t get in the way too much.
He said: “The majority of people [who] get into politics will have a viewpoint, but that doesn’t need to be forced into every decision.”
Highlighting the differences in opinion among members of the Bridgend County Independents, candidate Martin Williams said he doesn’t think there is a place at all for party politics at local government level.
He said: “I think those 51 councillors should sit down and decide according to their judgement and concerns.”
Mr Williams, a Coity Higher Community Council member, will be running for a position at county borough level on May 5.
It will be no revelation to some that Bridgend community Facebook pages are often frequented with posts on local issues that can quickly escalate into heated exchanges between Labour and Independent supporters.
When asked about some of these political posts and how independent councillors can avoid party politics when they form their own groups, Mr Williams said: “I think we have to make a distinction [between] being political and being party political.
“[One] thing that binds us together [is that] we all believe Labour have done an appalling job. We don’t think that the Conservatives are the answer.
“We are fighting to win and we are highlighting the failures of the Labour administration of the last 27 years.”
Mr Williams will be running for a seat in the Coity Higher ward alongside his wife and BCBC councillor before the 2022 election period, Amanda Williams.
Mrs Williams said party politics was never something that appealed to her.
She said: “I wanted to stand, not because I wanted a career in politics, [but] I just thought that in our area there were a lot of issues that weren’t being addressed.
“I don’t like being told what to do. I didn’t want any party telling me ‘you are going to have to vote this way’.
“That is not me and it is never going to be me. I am always going to vote the way I think I should vote.”
Mrs Williams was first voted in to BCBC following the 2017 elections as one of the candidates supported by the Bridgend County Independents – then called Change for Bridgend.
She and a number of other independent councillors got together to form the Independent Alliance, with Alex Williams as the group leader and her as the deputy group leader.
Despite being the largest opposition group at the council, Mrs Williams highlighted how there could be difficulties in forming a collective vote.
She said she liked the freedom of voting independently, but added that “as the Independent Alliance we vote differently quite often”.
“Like for the budget this year, I voted against [freezing council tax],” said Mrs Williams.
“Four of us voted against because we would have liked to have seen a reduction and we felt as though a reduction could have been considered.
“Some voted for it and others abstained. We are not told how to vote. Everything is on the day and what you feel.”
This year, 45 independent candidates are running for seats at county borough level in the local government elections in Bridgend. However, not all of them are Bridgend County Independent-supported.
When asked if a group would be formed should the majority of Bridgend County Independents-supported candidates win a seat, Mrs Williams said: “We would have to sit down and work that out.
“You do get people who will get in and decide that they don’t want to be part of your group.
“That is where the difficulty is. You can’t guarantee that you will get support for something to happen there. It would all depend on the numbers and who is willing to work with who.”
So how could the independents fare in this year’s elections?
Steven Bletsoe said: “All of [the wards] are expected to be closely fought. We could achieve something quite special.
“I personally don’t know if 26 councillors who are serving on May 4 will return on May 6. I think there will be a very big change of councillors. [Who] they will be I don’t know.”
You can read more about where some of the most hotly contested wards in Bridgend might be this May here.