There is no post-war precedent for having a general election campaign already underway whilst the local elections take place. Living in a competitive ward myself, in a normally marginal seat, I’m feeling the seasonal love that an election brings, and being bombarded with the literature coming through the door. This Thursday will see local elections in some councils in England, throughout Scotland, and across all twenty-two local authorities in Wales. But which party will be flying the flag of victory come May 5th, and will this be a taste of things to come on June 8th?
Of course we can expect variations in the council elections because of particular local politics and the strengths or failings of different local parties. But there is no doubt that the national mood does and will influence the results we get in the local elections. The most striking recent example of this is the fate of many Liberal Democrat councillors between 2011-15; the national unpopularity of the party after it entered the coalition government translated into many hard-working local Liberal Democrats losing their council seats.
The national mood at present is defined by Conservative dominance. Though many still view them as “the nasty party” (a term coined fifteen years ago by the current Prime Minister), the reality is that the Tories currently face no serious or credible opposition outside of Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP. Jeremy Corbyn has not persuaded most people that he offers effective leadership, while the Liberal Democrats are only at the start of a long road back after their crushing defeat in the 2015 general election.
The strong position of the Conservatives, and the weakness of the other parties, was reflected in the recent Welsh Political Barometer poll. This pointed to significant Tory gains, and substantial Labour losses, in the general election. Something similar is also likely this Thursday. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher from the University of Plymouth have estimated council seat gains and losses based on the Barometer poll’s question on local election voting intentions. This, they suggest, points to the following overall changes:
Labour: -130 seats
Conservatives: +90 seats
Plaid Cymru: +20 seats
Liberal Democrats: No change
Independents/Others: +20 seats
After last week’s dismal polling results, suffering three-figure losses of councillors would be another body blow for Welsh Labour. And making substantial gains would be another huge boost to the Welsh Conservatives. In practice, I would be surprised if the Tories picked up quite this many seats – their performance in local elections in Wales in recent years has been distinctly patchy. I would also be surprised if the Liberal Democrats make no net gains at all.
However, even before the local election takes place, I can tell you who some of the winners will be. This isn’t because I am psychic, but is because of the distressingly common phenomenon of uncontested seats.
Roughly eight percent of all the seats up for election in Wales have only one candidate. This is very similar to the proportion that were uncontested in 2012 – something which stood in stark contrast to Scotland, where there were no uncontested seats. The full list of uncontested seats that have thus already been won by each party is as follows:
Plaid Cymru: 28 (+6 on 2012)
Independents: 26 (-7)
Labour: 18 (+1)
Conservatives: 5 (+3)
Liberal Democrats: 1 (-1)
The pattern of who wins these uncontested seats is explained by where they are: heavily concentrated in rural mid and west Wales, with particularly large numbers in Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire and Powys. We see few uncontested seats in the more heavily populated parts of the country, by contrast: none at all in Cardiff, Newport, Swansea or Wrexham.
Why are there uncontested seats? The parties often have difficulty finding people who want to be candidates – a problem likely to be greater in more sparsely-populated parts of the country. To many people being a councillor looks like a thankless task, with little reward, that they are not willing to commit to.
More obvious is that we just have too many elected councillors in Wales. Wales has a population of a little more than three million compared to Scotland’s of just over five and a quarter million. Yet Wales has more elected councillors: 1,271 here to Scotland’s 1,219. That gives us roughly one elected council representative for every 2,360 of us, compared to around one for every 4,343 people in Scotland.
Scotland also has a strong advantage over Wales in that it uses the proportional STV system for its local elections. That means that every (multi-member) ward is competitive: everyone has something to fight for. In Wales, under a non-proportional system, we have lots of safe wards where parties are reluctant to fight if they are certain they will lose. There is a strong, and in my view compelling, argument for moving to STV for local elections in Wales.
Whoever ends up ‘winning’ an uncontested council seat, the losers are the public and democracy.
NOTE: The April Welsh Political Barometer poll was conducted by YouGov for ITV-Cymru Wales and Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre. It had a sample of 1029 Welsh adults, with interviews being conducted via the internet between 19-21 April 2017.