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

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University.