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Iscennen Ward (Ammanford) – By-election

Rhys Fisher (Plaid Cymru) 237
Thomas Fallows (Labour) 79
Emyr John (Independent) 45

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Bearing in mind that there are more than 730 community and town councils in Wales and around 8,000 town or community councillors, it would be reasonable to expect that death, insanity, bankruptcy, long-term illness and imprisonment would mean a healthy crop of community by-elections every week, but in reality by-elections at the paddling pool end of local democracy are comparatively rare events and generally do not merit more than a passing mention in what is left of the local media.

The convention is that when a serving councillor steps down or falls off his or her perch, a replacement is co-opted until the next round of elections, if elections ever take place, because on many community councils the incumbents will be returned unopposed. On councils where members are politically affiliated, the convention is that the party which held the seat at the previous election gets to nominate the successor.

Because town and community councillors, at least the good ones, are in reality little more than unpaid volunteer dogsbodies presiding over tiny budgets with very little in the way of power, this democratic fudge works, and voters tend not to look kindly on those who force unnecessary and expensive by-elections to decide who in Cwmsgwt will patrol dog poo alley.

Last week’s contest in Iscennen ward for a seat on Ammanford Town Council was different for a number of reasons and merits a closer look.

The previous incumbent in Iscennen was Chris Corgi Jones, proprietor of the posh hosiery factory, who was elected on a Plaid ticket. Chris decided to step down to spend more time with his socks, and the expectation was that the party would duly nominate a successor to be co-opted, but 14 miles down the road the vipers’ nest known as the Llanelli Labour Party had other ideas, and a candidate was found to front Rob James’s attempt to reconquer Ammanford.

And so it came to pass that young Thomas Fallows agreed to boldly go where nobody with any sense would have ventured to tread, having seen the light in a meeting with Owen Jones, the Guardian’s answer to Dave Spart. Perhaps he’d spent too much time in a darkened room on his X-box, but once he’d signed on the dotted line, it was too late, and to the disgust of the good people of Ammanford, an unnecessary and expensive by-election was triggered.

Those who met Tom during the campaign say he is pleasant enough and polite, but would probably have struggled with the complexities of town council business.

Plaid fielded Rhys Fisher, a bright young man from Ammanford who is captain of the town’s football team and a sports coach who works with apprentices at Coleg Sir Gâr.

Labour and Plaid were then joined by an independent candidate as the three legged 100 to 1 outsider.

The campaign was a clean fight almost to the end, and was heavy on the shoe leather. Kevin Madge dutifully trotted round with young Tom, and the Llanelli Labour Party threw all of its big guns in.

The slogan chosen for the Labour campaign, presumably in a committee room in Llanelli, was “#TakeBackControl“, a peculiarly inappropriate and tribalist line to take for a homely town council by-election, and something which strikes an uncannily familiar dog whistle note.

Now where have we heard that one before? Surely not a brexity echo of the campaign run by the assorted charlatans and conmen fronted by Boris Johnson?

Perhaps sensing that the wind was not blowing in the right direction, Rob James went nuclear in the final few days with a clumsily worded smear campaign directed at Plaid. Right on cue, the ever reliable editor of the South Wales Evening Post, Llanelli Star and Carmarthen Journal, Jonathan Roberts, ran Rob’s “story” about a grant to redevelop the former Lloyds Bank branch as a front page splash in both the SWEP and the Journal – the day before voters went to the polls.

This ham-fisted last minute intervention probably lost readers, and clearly did not win any votes. Young Tom went down to a heavy defeat, with Plaid out-polling him by three to one.

A humble town council by-election it may have been, but this was a remarkable result in an area which not so very long ago was one of the strongest of Labour’s strongholds, where Gwynfor Evans used to be subjected to abuse on the streets.

From 1966 until 2001 the constituency would swing back to Labour every time the Tories were in power. Jonathan Edwards was the first to break the mould in 2015.

With Theresa May heading up the worst government in living memory, Labour is facing an open goal and should be sweeping all before it, but Corbyn is now trailing May in the opinion polls. Rob James, who recently completed his takeover of the Labour group on the county council with the toss of a coin, apparently masterminded the campaign. He seems to have peaked before he even started.

There are many areas where Labour can still pin a red rosette on the proverbial dead donkey and win, Llanelli being one of them. What the Amman Valley shows is that hard work and good candidates can break Labour’s sclerotic grip in places which it has taken for granted for decades.