The major electoral event scheduled for 2017 in Wales is the local elections. On 4th May, all of Wales’ twenty-two local authorities are up for full re-election. Most of these last had elections in 2012; because of some ‘local difficulties’, the election in Ynys Môn was suspended until 2013. But proposals made before the 2016 Assembly election for the re-structuring of the local government map in Wales, it is the same authorities that will be elected once again this year.
In 2012 (except for viewers in Ynys Môn) the elections were a considerable triumph for the Labour party, following on from their best-ever Assembly election performance the previous year. The following table summarises the overall pattern of results in the twenty-one authorities that held elections (with changes on the 2008 results in brackets)
|Party||Councillors Won||Authorities won|
|Labour||577 (+237)||10 (+8)|
|Plaid Cymru||158 (-39)||0|
|Conservative||105 (-67)||0 (-2)|
|Independents||323 (-30)||2 (-1)|
(Nine of the twenty-one authorities elected ended up under ‘No Overall Control’ of a single party, a decline of five from the situation after the 2008 elections. A more detailed write-up of the results is available here).
Clearly in 2012 Labour did extremely well, rebounding very strongly after disappointing local elections in 2004 and 2008. Such was the strength of the Labour tide that all other forces suffered a set-back. The Liberal Democrats did horribly, as they did in all sets of local elections during the life of the Westminster coalition government. But the Conservatives also had a significant set-back; Plaid Cymru held their ground slightly better, but still made a net loss equivalent to around one fifth of the seats they had been defending. UKIP were not a significant force in the elections at all.
Why did Labour do so well? Much of it was doubtless down to hard work by their candidates and local parties. But I daresay many of their opponents were also working hard. Strongly in Labour’s favour was the national mood. There is a very long-standing pattern that national politics shapes the local election performance of all the major parties.
Why should this be? Local councils have their own responsibilities, and we elect their members ourselves. Surely the behaviour of UK- or Welsh-level politicians and the popularity of national parties should have no more relevance to the electoral prospects of local councillors than does the behaviour of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian?
Well, this might seem so. But there is undoubtedly often some spill-over from one electoral arena to another. In the United States, for example, the President’s party normally does poorly in the mid-term elections. Local elections in the UK are similarly a good example of ‘second order election’ theory in practice: whereby, in elections perceive by much of the public as less important than ‘first order’ ones (such as U.S Presidential elections, or UK general elections), we tend to witness a number of consistent phenomena:
- Fewer people both to turnout to vote
- Governing parties in the ‘first order’ arena tend to do poorly; and
- Political unpopular parties in the ‘first order’ arena also tend to do poorly
Combining the latter two points, unpopular governing parties tend to do particularly badly: see the Conservatives in the mid-1990s, Labour a decade later, and the Lib-Dems from 2010-15.
These national effects are not absolute and all-encompassing. The national trends can sometimes be bucked by very good or indeed bad local councils and candidates, and by active and effective local campaigning. But the overall effects are strong and consistent.
So what expectations should we therefore have for this year’s elections? I hesitate to discuss this, given that normal political rules seem to have been suspended across much of the democratic world in the last eighteen months. But, without making any outright predictions, I would make the following observations:
Labour: At the time of the 2012 local elections, Labour was polling around 50% in Wales for both Westminster and the Assembly (constituency vote). In short, the 2012 local elections came at pretty much the ideal time for Labour, at a 21st century high water-mark in terms of their popularity in Wales. The situation is much less favourable for Labour now. Their poll ratings are now about twenty points lower. It seems inevitable that Labour will be on the defensive, and they are likely to lose ground. Their one saving grace – as it always seems to be in Wales – might be the weakness of their opponents in many places.
Conservatives: The Conservatives are in government at the UK level, which would normally predict them doing poorly in the local elections. But for a party well into the mid-term stage they are performing remarkably strongly in the polls. So it is difficult to know what to expect. We should probably also note that the Tory performance in local council by-elections in recent years has been patchy at best. So we should perhaps expect relatively modest overall gains, with significant variation in local performances.
Plaid Cymru: Local by-elections since 2012 have confirmed Plaid Cymru’s status as the second party of Welsh local government. But they are currently a long way behind Labour, and although they have had some good by-election performances in recent years, their presence and performance in local elections remains inconsistent. We should be expecting some gains overall, but again probably considerable variation in performances.
Liberal Democrats: Recent months have seen the Lib-Dems performing strongly in many local by-elections in England. There have also been a small number of good performances in Wales (and only a tiny number in Scotland). But these local recoveries by the party have not yet been reflected in improved poll ratings – which is puzzling, as the trends lines of local by-elections and poll ratings tend to move roughly in parallel. What this probably points to in Wales in 2017 is some recovery, but again only in some places.
UKIP: UKIP of course now have a significant presence in the Assembly, while they continue to poll respectably here for both Westminster and the Assembly. Yet they remain utterly insignificant in Welsh local government; recent local by-elections have seen them often failing to stand candidates, and generally performing poorly even when they do stand. So will UKIP even manage to have many candidates? And will many – even any – of them actually win?