Local election briefing – Wales

By Robyn Evans

Wales returns to the polls

Just one year on from the Senedd election, voters in Wales will return to the polls this May to vote in all 22 local authorities.

Unlike in England, all council seats in Wales are voted for in one go with a First Past the Post voting system. The political make-up in Welsh local government has been mixed since the last local elections, with 11 of the 22 councils in No Overall Control and so run by coalitions. Of the remaining authorities, Labour control 7 and Independents control two, whilst the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru lead one each.

With less than a month to go, what is the picture looking like across Wales?

Labour hopes to repeat Senedd success

Welsh Labour had a surprisingly strong performance at last year’s Senedd election, matching its best ever result. First Minister Mark Drakeford’s profile and response to the coronavirus pandemic were seen as key to the party’s successful campaign, and polling suggests the party is in a strong position for the upcoming elections. 

As the largest party in local government, Welsh Labour will be defending majorities along the M4 corridor in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Newport and Torfaen. However, the party suffered big losses in 2017, losing more than a hundred councillors and majority control of three heartland councils (Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil), with Independents benefitting there.

Five years on, the national picture is very different. Welsh Labour’s presence has grown over the past two years, succeeding in cultivating a distinctly Welsh identity, separate from that of UK Labour. It will be looking to use this as it seeks to rebuild at local government level and improve on its 2017 result. 

National issues test the Tories

The Welsh Conservatives performed well in 2017, taking majority control of Monmouthshire and raising their total number of Welsh council seats by 80 to 184. The party have cabinet members in ruling coalitions in Powys, Wrexham, Conwy and Denbighshire, where they became the largest group in 2017.

It is worth keeping an eye on the Vale of Glamorgan where the Tories became the biggest group of councillors at the last council elections, leading the authority for two years. Labour took back control there in 2019, as head of a coalition, following internal rows which resulted in eight councillors quitting the Conservative group.

Wider national issues will undoubtedly impact voting. The fate of the Welsh Conservatives could be determined by the verdict on Johnson’s UK Government after months of difficult headlines culminating in a fine for the prime minister and the chancellor over lockdown parties. While Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart has brushed off such concerns, claiming that people have moved on from party-gate, the elections will be a good indicator of just how much this statement rings true in Wales.

Plaid deals – opportunity or challenge? 

Plaid Cymru made modest gains in 2017, currently leading four councils in Wales, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Anglesey and Gwynedd. After a disappointing performance in the Senedd election, the Welsh nationalist party will be hoping to get back on a positive trajectory.

The elections will be the first test of how the Welsh Labour/Plaid Cymru Co-operation Agreement is landing with the public. The question is whether this, coupled with Plaid’s deal with the Greens at Cardiff Council, will provide the party with momentum, or prove challenging in differentiating themselves on the doorstep.

This is something party leader Adam Price will be alive to. Keen to demonstrate the ways in which his party is already making a difference to people’s everyday lives, Mr Price recently promised that Plaid councils will aim to extend universal free school meals to secondary school pupils within the next council term, building on an agreement with the Welsh Labour Government to provide free school meals to all primary pupils in Wales. Tackling the housing crisis and taking radical action on second homes is another key commitment for the party. 

One of Plaid’s key targets will be taking control of Conwy Borough Council, where it was just short of entering office in 2017. We will also be watching Cardiff to see whether Plaid succeeds in re-establishing itself in the capital through its agreement with the Green Party.

Do not discount the power of Independents

The Welsh Lib Dems retained one seat in the Welsh Parliament last May, with party leader Jane Dodds representing the Mid and West Wales region. The party has struggled to find a distinctive voice in Welsh politics in recent years and does not hold power in any of Wales’ local authorities. Meanwhile, we cannot overlook Independents, who made up the second largest group of successful candidates last time around.

Democratic challenges

There has been vocal concern that voters in large parts of Wales will be denied a vote at the local elections, with several council seats already decided. New analysis from ERS Cymru estimates that 106,920 Welsh voters across nine local authorities will be presented with uncontested council candidates. A total of 74 councillors will be elected unopposed. Gwynedd has the highest number of uncontested seats at 28, while Pembrokeshire has19.

In more positive news for Welsh democracy, this will be the first local government election held under the recently expanded Welsh voting franchise, meaning both 16- and 17-year-olds and foreign nationals living in Wales will be eligible to vote.

As part of the Welsh Government’s electoral reform agenda, Wales will also be piloting early voting in four South Wales counties. Voters in Bridgend, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, and Torfaen will be able to vote early in different locations to their usual polling station, to make it easier and more convenient to access the ballot box. It will be interesting to see how these developments affect voter turnout.

SEC Newgate in Wales

If you would like any further information about the elections in Wales or how this could influence your project, please get in touch: wales@secnewgate.co.uk