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Results in Wales are far from disastrous for Labour - but things still look bleak

Labour didn't quite collapse in Wales - but all signs point to a difficult general election in its strongest historical bastion

Unlike in England, Wales saw full elections for all of its local authorities yesterday. After the shock of last week’s poll suggesting that Labour might lose their first general election in Wales since 1918, what message emerges from the local elections about the prospects for June 8th?

Five years ago, Welsh Labour did very well in the Welsh local elections, increasing the number of council seats they held by around 70%; by the end of that night they had substantially more councillor in Wales than did the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats put together. With Labour now polling around twenty points lower in Wales than they were in 2012, it was inevitable that they would lose ground. The big questions were how much ground and to whom? Would Labour now be in the nightmare position that the Conservatives were in the 1990s – when they were so unpopular that many voters would turn to pretty much whichever party locally was in a position to unseat them? Or would we find that Labour was better able to fight off some challengers than others?

As is per usual with local elections, there has been plenty of patchiness in the results: parties losing in some places and gaining in others. But beneath this noise, and although we await some final councils to declare, the broad signal from these elections is clear. Labour did lose ground, but it did not have the dreadful night that many in the party had feared.

The party entered the night with nearly 600 council seats and majority control of nearly half the councils in Wales. They will likely end up with their number of councillors reduced by over 100, and the number of councils under Labour control almost halved. But the election was very far from a total disaster. Labour actually gained a little ground in Flintshire and Swansea and showed impressive resilience to hold onto majority control of both Cardff and Newport.

In other places, notably Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr and Wrexham,  Welsh Labour performed much less well. But even here there was a silver lining for the party, with the general election in mind. Labour’s big losses in these councils were not against the other main parties who they will be fighting in the general election, but against independent candidates.

The Welsh Conservatives made some gains, but more patchily than in much of England. They will be encouraged by the ground they have made in Bridgend, for example – a key winnable seat for them in the general election. But overall these local elections suggest that while the people of Wales may be more inclined to support the Conservatives in the context of a general election, they have certainly not yet fallen in love with the Tories.

Still, even the limited progress made by the Wesh Conservatives looks better than the performance of Labour’s other opponents. Plaid Cymru have made only a small number of net gains. While they should narrowly retain their position as the second party of local government in Wales, they must surely be disappointed: with Labour on the defensive they really should be doing better than this. Plaid need to ask themselves some hard questions about why independent candidates were so much better equipped to defeat Labour than they were.

Yet even the performance of Plaid looks good in comparison to that of the Liberal Democrats. It is difficult to over-state how dreadfully the Welsh Lib-Dems did in the equivalent local elections five years ago. So it is also hard to credit that, far from making significant progress with their much heralded ‘fightback’, the Lib-Dems are actually on course to make a net loss of seats in Wales this year. About the best things we can say about the Loberal Democrats is that at least they did better than UKIP. The Kippers were irrelevant to the Welsh local elections five years ago, and they remained so in 2017. The brief flowering of Welsh UKIP between 2014-16 already appears to be fading rapidly.

The most recent Welsh opinion poll had Labour two points ahead in voting intentions for the council elections – but ten points behind for the general election. These local elections have been far from disastrous for Welsh Labour. Nonetheless, they hardly point to anything other than a difficult general election for the party in its strongest historical bastion.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear