What to look for in the Welsh local elections

On Thursday voters in Wales and Scotland will elect their local councillors. By popular demand from the Cornish masses (well, one of them anyway), I’ve been persuaded to do a blog on our Celtic compatriots as they troop wearisomely to the polls. Four times within two years in Scotland! Whatever would Brenda of Bristol say? Poor dears must be exhausted by this surfeit of democracy. How will they possibly get the energy required to go shopping?

Two aspects complicate matters if we want to compare the Welsh with the English local elections. Wales has unitary local government so all, rather than some, authorities are up for election this year. And the last elections were five years ago, not four, as the 2016 elections were postponed so as not to coincide with the Welsh Assembly vote. (The exception is Ynys Môn, which held its previous election in 2013). Because this was a year before 2013, unlike in England there was no surge of support for Ukip last time either.

In terms of seats here’s the results of the four Welsh local elections since the devolved assembly was set up.

1999 2004 2008 2012
Labour 563 479 (-84) 345 (-134) 580 (+235)
Independents 295 321 (+26) 334 (+13) 298 (-36)
Plaid Cymru 205 175 (-30) 206 (+31) 170 (-36)
Lib Dems 98 146 (+48) 165 (+19) 72 (-93)
Conservative 75 107 (+32) 174 (+67) 105 (-71)
Other 34 35 (+1) 40 (+5) 41 (+1)

Labour has a bit of a problem in Wales. In 2012 it was riding high in the polls, scoring its best result for years. Now polling between 15 and 20% lower, it faces certain losses. The only question is how many. Roger Scully of Cardiff University suggests over 100. On the basis of the polls this looks decidedly over-optimistic from the Labour perspective. Kernowpolitico of Redruth expects a performance more like 2008, which could bring as many as 200 losses.

[reproduced courtesy of MrPenguin20 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56783543%5D
In 2012 Labour won a majority of seats in all south Welsh urban and post-industrial authorities apart from Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan. On a bad night they could lose all those authorities save Rhondda and Neath Port Talbot. However, the number of Labour candidates has held up well and they may avoid this scenario. No doubt the tabloids will be sharpening their pencils, ready to plunge them into Jeremy Corbyn if Labour loses more than 100. Of course, if they do a lot better, those tabloids will no doubt ignore the result while srtill plunging their pencils into Corbyn’s back. Basically, the rule is Labour mustn’t win.

The Tories are riding high in the polls and in a local election poll in Wales amazingly came just two percentage points behind Labour. At the least, they must be expecting to regain their 2008 position, get a majority in Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan and make serious gains in places like Newport and Conwy. Their number of candidates is around 10% higher this time, although still well behind Labour. Yet a lot of them don’t seem to be in particularly winnable areas.

If the Tories gain votes and Labour lose, the Lib Dems in Wales might be hoping to sneak through on a minority vote. But a Lib Dem recovery looks less likely than in England. In Wales their poll rating is fairly dismal and a fall of around 15% in the number of Lib Dem candidates doesn’t suggest a party in rude health. Their best hope for gains is probably Cardiff, where they were the largest party before 2012 and where an anti-Brexit stance might bring more dividends.

Plaid has maintained its number of candidates at 583, rather fewer than the Tories but over twice the number of Lib Dems. They’ll be looking to get back over the 200 seat mark, as in 2008. Yet in many authorities their presence is limited. Indeed, in 10 of Wales’ 22 local authorities they have fewer councillors pro rata than MK does in Cornwall. Their strength is still heavily focused on Cymru Cymraeg (with the exception of Caerffili and the Rhondda) and their main hopes lie in their traditional heartland – Caerfyrddin, Ceredigion, Gywnedd and Ynys Môn.

Ukip is standing more candidates this time – 80. But this is many fewer than the other parties, or Independents for that matter, who are contesting more wards than any party other than Labour. In 2012 Ukip won two seats. It’s unlikely to do much better this time. Meanwhile, the Greens have around the same number of candidates as Ukip and will be crossing their fingers desperate to secure their first Welsh local councillor since 1999.

This may be the last local elections under a first past the post format, as the Welsh Government is toying with the idea of introducing PR for local government elections. Although it’s confusing matters somewhat by maybe letting local authorities decide. So can we expect any remaining Labour-run councils to resist PR and stick with the Victorian system? A test of their essential conservatism looms.

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Minor parties and next week’s local elections

The London media seem to have largely forgotten about them in their eagerness to crown the May Queen but next week we have an actual vote to dissect rather than opinion polls. In four of the nations of the UK – rural England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall – there are local elections on Thursday. Let’s look beyond the Westminster bubble to these more pressing elections. More specifically, what do the nominations at the locals tell us about the state of readiness of the byways of British politics, the margins, the extremes, the bizarre, those beyond the familiar be-suited landscape of the Westminster humbug centre?

Ukip is faltering. Their main policy objective apparently achieved and many of their policies now adopted by the Tories, they’ve lost direction. If the latest polls are anywhere near accurate, their support is collapsing fast. Ironically, Ukip, having set out to inject change into the political system, has served merely as a bridge from voting Labour to voting Conservative. The number of Ukip candidates in the local elections in England has fallen by a third since these seats were last fought in 2013, while their intervention in Scotland and Wales is feeble. We shall have to wait until May 4th, but it’s very likely that they will lose over half their current crop of councillors.

In terms of candidates, they’ve been overtaken by the Greens, who have increased their challenge at the coming local elections by almost 50%. With less to lose and everything to gain, they may come out of the local elections with increased morale. Nonetheless, this snap election will have caught local Green parties unawares. As a result they are most unlikely to contest anything like the 573 seats they did in the 2015 general election. Expect both Greens and Ukip to be nearer 300 than 500 candidates, with Ukip taking the opportunity not to challenge Brexit Tories and the Greens using the ‘progressive alliance’ as a cover for withdrawing from seats.

More generally, at the general election the broad pattern of growing numbers of minor party candidates since the 1980s, peaking in 2010, will be very abruptly reversed. Given the extremely short time to decide on candidates and raise the cash, plus the fact that parties are concentrating on the locals (something the May Queen no doubt took note of before making her decision) it’s likely that numbers will fall back from over 1,800 to under 1,000. The majority of those will be Ukip or Greens.

Few of the smaller parties are likely to put up as many candidates as last time. If the local elections are a guide, then TUSC numbers will fall dramatically, as the Socialist Party and its fellow travellers throw their limited weight behind Corbynite Labour. The state might not be withering away, but the left parties are. Respect has apparently disappeared, the Socialist Labour Party is disappearing, the Communist Party of Britain lingers on life support and the number of Scottish Socialist Party candidates in the local elections has halved since 2012. (Although Scottish Solidarity has increased its numbers to partially make up the deficit in Scotland.)

Meanwhile, on the far right, the BNP looks unlikely to rise from the dead any time soon, having watched both its electoral support and its activists being swept away in the Ukip tide. Ditto for the English Democrats. Between them, these two parties can only raise 15 candidates for the local elections, compared with 142 the last time around.

There are a few new kids on the block. The Scottish Libertarians are fielding 22 candidates in the local elections north of the border. The Womens’ Equality Party (WEP), with its celebrity supporters, is getting some media attention. But there are only three WEP candidates standing in the locals, plus another contesting the Liverpool City Region combined authority mayoral election.

Finally, the appearance of English regionalist parties in 2015 began to fill a gap hitherto only sporadically and quixotically occupied by the Wessex Regionalists. The Yorkshire Party is only standing two candidates for the 72 seats on North Yorkshire County Council. But its main support is in the urban areas of West and South Yorkshire, where there are no local elections this year, with the exception of Doncaster, which is out of sync. The party is putting forward five candidates there and fighting the Doncaster mayoral election. The North East Party is also building on the base established in 2015. It has 14 candidates competing for Durham’s 126 seats, someone up for the combined authority mayoral position in Tees Valley and a newly designed, more professional website. Nevertheless, it seems confined to south of the Tyne, with no candidates at all standing in Northumberland.

Nonetheless, both these parties will be hoping to make a breakthrough in the local elections and get their first elected councillor, something that would be a big boost to any general election exposure.

The case of the mysteriously disappearing party

In 2013 Ukip won six seats on Cornwall Council. This made it the fifth largest political group, ahead of MK. Yet, since then the six have shrunk to a less magnificent one and Ukip slipped to rank as the sixth largest group, tied with the single Green councillor. Before and after losing the Stoke Central by-election the post-Farage Ukip’s vote at local by-elections has been slowly haemorrhaging. However, the Ukip bubble in Cornwall began deflating well before the party’s more recent post-Brexit problems.

A year after the 2013 breakthrough Ukip councillor Michael Keogh at Mabe resigned, citing ‘personal circumstances’. He was followed in March 2015 by Viv Lewis at Camborne Treswithian. A retired bus driver and one of the triumvirate of Hayle-based Ukip councillors elected for wards in Camborne and Four Lanes, Viv, now deceased, was 82 years old when elected. His success no doubt came as a great surprise to him.

Councillor Lewis was followed within months by his fellow Camborne councillor Harry Blakeley. Harry, originally from Kent before running a holiday park in Cornwall, gave ill-health as the reason for his departure in June 2015. But he’d been involved in some curious shenanigans and associated wrangling with fellow Ukip members over his sponsorship of a young Kipper who turned out to have interesting views and connections to the BNP.

In April 2016 two of the remaining three Ukip councillors also departed for pastures new. At Four Lanes Derek Elliott, one of the more effective Ukip members in the west, went, accusing councillors of voting like sheep and presiding over a ‘public sector shambles’. At the same time Mark Hicks at Newquay Treviglas took the opportunity to quit as well, ‘for personal reasons’. Councillor Hicks was a rarity among Ukip councillors, having been born and brought up in Cornwall. However, he was allegedly, and perhaps wisely, seldom present at Ukip gatherings.

Which leaves just lonely Steph McWilliam carrying the flag for Ukip from her base in rural east Cornwall on the banks of the Lynher.

It will be interesting to see how many Ukip candidates offer themselves for election in May. In 2013 they contested the majority (76 of 123) of the seats. It will also be of interest to see if any successful candidates turn out to have greater staying power than the last lot. You might have thought the poor record of Ukip’s elected representatives would make voters think twice before putting a cross by their name. On the other hand the average Ukip voter probably has little idea how they’ve performed or particular desire to find out.

Even more worrying for Ukip must be their feeble performance at the five by-elections in the seats they were theoretically defending. Losing all of them, the best they’ve managed is to come third. No candidate at all could be found for two of the contests. At the most recent by-election they fought, at Four Lanes, their man came bottom, sixth out of six.

Nonetheless, the protest vote that they garnered in 2013 has hardly gone away but simmers resentfully in dark corners of the land. The open question is where that 24% of the mean vote might flow come May. It may surge back to Ukip. Yet there’s no reason such voters should always opt for conservative populism. At recent by-elections it’s been picked up the Liberal Democrats, the traditional safe home for the aimless and disaffected. But it could be up for grabs in a Cornwall-wide election.

North Cornwall poll: Lib Dems shading it though still too close to call

The last Cornish constituency poll of the election appeared yesterday. This was for North Cornwall, now polled four times in a year by Ashcroft. Over that time, the share of the vote for Lib Dem Rogerson and Tory Mann has risen, while that for Ukip and Labour fell. The Greens have hovered around the 5% mark.

VI change North Cwll May 1

Although there’s been a considerable shift back to the two familiar parties since last year, this poll shows very little change since the last one taken in March. Rogerson continues to eke out a narrow 2% lead, but one still uncomfortably within the margin of error. It looks like the winner here will be he who squeezes the other parties most in the last five days. Mann has a 14% Ukip share to aim at, while Rogerson can try to steal back a 13% Labour/Green/MK share. Neither has an obvious advantage in the tactical vote struggle, therefore.

Moreover, the total score for others, at around 27%, has not shifted over the last month of campaigning. It could be that the low hanging fruit was picked over the winter. The Ukip and Green vote now looks fairly stable. Moreover, the leap in the score for others over the last month by 2%, from 1% to 3%, may prove welcome news for MK. Here’s the change since the last election.

VI change NC May 2

Is the free press doing its duty and making Britain safe for the Tories?

As the election ritual stutters on to its consummation in the bonfire of ballots in a week’s time, let’s check that the corporate press is doing its duty. How many headlines has each party got per candidate over the last month? (The source is the Nexis news database)

press headlines

The SNP are so far out in front as to be almost out of sight. Of course, most of the headlines outside Scotland are not exactly complimentary. More like scaremongering, hysterical or just plain daft. The headlines for Labour, given the way the media has pounced on Ed Milibland’s meeting with Russell Brand, the spawn of Satan, are no doubt similarly negative. But, on the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Labour are holding up well in the corporate media.

Ukip are doing slightly better than the Lib Dems, who these days are not of much interest to corporate journalists or anyone else (which may explain increasingly desperate Lib Dem leaks). Plaid do better than both of these parties, given their candidate numbers. Even MK’s ten ‘headlines’ give them a better rating. But here we must note a small problem with using this measure. All the 10 MK ‘headlines’ were in fact topping opinion pieces invited from the candidates by the local press. Not one was a story about the party as opposed to a political policy position from the party. These ‘candidate pieces’ make up only a very small proportion of other parties’ headlines.

Why no Greens in the chart? Because the search facility in the Nexis database doesn’t allow an easy distinguishing between the political party and village greens, golf greens or even green tea.

tusc loc electns 2015When it comes to alternative socialist voices, TUSC, who have arguably produced one of the liveliest party political broadcasts, has only managed to generate eight headlines, despite having 133 candidates. That’s 0.06 per candidate, compared with around 4 for the Westminster austerity cheerleaders. So good to know our corporate press can still do its job and report these rituals fully and fairly, isn’t it.

The geography of Ukip

ukip cands locals 2015Ukip has managed a near 100% coverage of English, Welsh and Cornish seats in the general election. But the kippers’ strength on the ground has a geography and clearly varies from place to place. This map shows the proportion of the local council seats they’re contesting next week.

As might be expected, the Kippers are strong in the far south east – Kent and Essex – reflecting the scenes of their two by-election victories last year. In some other parts of the rural English deep south they’re equally busy, in particular Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. But their greatest effort is less predictably being made in the conurbations of the west Midlands, Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It’ll be interesting however to see how successful this reaching out to the northern urban population will be.

In south west England, Ukip is surprisingly much less active. They’re only contesting just over a quarter of available seats in Devon for example, which was one of their strongest areas in 2010 election. In Devon the Greens have managed to stand a slate of candidates for the locals which is almost twice as big as that of the Kippers. Is Ukip turning into a regional party for the south east of England?

Minor parties: the far right

Ever since first getting acquainted as a small child barely out of nappies with the ever-changing intricacies of electoral politics, I’ve been fascinated by minority parties. Those brave souls on the margins seemed a lot more interesting than the suits in the centre, with their bland promises and disingenuous half-truths. I don’t have to agree with them but, like a botanist or geologist classifying rare specimens, I find them of never-ending interest.

Of course, in those days before the internal combustion engine was invented, the marginal fringe of British politics was underpopulated territory. It mainly consisted of the Communist Party, kept alive by subventions from the former Soviet Union, and SNP/Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales, together with an assortment of Independents, proto-fascists and one-man bands of varying degrees of eccentricity.

Over the past 20 or 30 years however there’s been a veritable explosion of the fringe. In the meantime, the SNP and Plaid have become main parties, too successful to retain minor party status, and they’ve even been joined there these days by Ukip and the Greens.

There’s now so many minor parties jostling for attention on the far reaches of electoral visibility that one blog describing them all is impossible. Instead, they warrant a series of pieces, so here’s the first, which looks at the current state of the far right, before moving leftwards in later blogs.

Far right minor parties in Britain are in a sorry state, having been swamped by the Ukip tide. In fact, you can almost feel sorry for the British National Party. Here’s an unashamedly racist party which almost broke through into the big time, only to see its ungrateful supporters run off in droves to vote for a party which denies being racist at all. Ukip’s 1950s nostalgia and its nuttier and more naïve style has proved far more attractive to the media, thus allowing it to attain the major party status denied to the altogether more threatening BNP.

Yet back in 2010 the BNP contested over half the seats, more than the Greens. In fact, the average vote for its 338 candidates – at 3.7% – was higher (just) than the 3.6% achieved by Ukip’s 558 hopefuls. Moreover, the BNP saved a greater proportion of deposits, 21% compared with Ukip’s 18%. In the years from 2006 to 2009 the BNP had come close to making the far right’s first electoral breakthrough, winning over 50 council seats, MEPs and a Greater London Assembly member. Expectations were raised, but the failure to achieve them led to collapse, despite the relatively encouraging showing in 2010. Instead, the BNP only served to ensure the rise of Ukip, by making the latter party seem more acceptable in contrast.

The party duly imploded, resulting in the eventual expulsion of its former Leader Nick Griffin and a catastrophic fall in membership. At present the BNP has just one declared candidate in place – at Boston & Skegness. Many observers reckon it will struggle to put up the 89 candidates needed to qualify for a party political broadcast. However many appear, it’s likely the number won’t be anywhere near 300 and the proportion losing their deposit much higher than last time. Nonetheless, BNP support was always quite concentrated geographically – more so in fact than that of Ukip. Potential reservoirs of support remain in East London and south Essex, the West Midlands or the North West and when the Ukip bubble inevitably bursts expect a resurgence from the BNP.

Or perhaps from one of its successor parties. As in 2012-13 various splinter parties were formed by disillusioned former BNP members These include Patria, standing in England’s Deep South at Bournemouth and Chichester. Or there’s the British Democratic Party, the brainchild of Andrew Brons, former BNP MEP. For a time this looked as if it would take over the far right mantle from the BNP, but its website has become a lot quieter recently and it’s yet to announce any candidates, even though promising it’ll be standing somewhere come May.

These parties tend to be linked by a virulent Islamophobia, which serves as their key message. As it does for LibertyGB also founded in 2013, but whose founder and candidate at Luton is a former Ukip member rather than scion of the BNP.

And then there’s two other parties who pre-exist the BNP’s existential crisis but have also received renegades fleeing that party. These are the English Democrats, who espouse a policy of independence for England, but not devolution to its regions. They’ve named 20 candidates so far, but this is well down on the 107 they put up in 2010, saving one deposit and with an average score of 1.3%. The English Democrats, despite areas of relative strength in South Yorkshire, look to be in danger of being crushed by the Ukip bandwagon.

Finally, there’s the oldest surviving far right party – the National Front – which almost broke through in the 1970s, before being made irrelevant by Thatcherite Conservatism. The NF has a policy for everything and allies its Islamophobia with the defence of rural communities and the rural environment – a sort of cross between the BNP, the Countryside Alliance and an even more right wing version of Ukip. But the NF has its own problems, having suffered internal splits over the past few years and finding itself de-registered by the Electoral Commission.

Overall, the far right’s total of 23 candidates declared so far looks pitiful when compared with the 462 candidates these same parties put up last time, or even the 156 who stood for them in 2005. Ukip has succeeded in monopolising the far right vote, at least temporarily.