The Welsh electoral map is split into three parts. In the post-industrial valleys and cities of the south, Labor have eight councils; in the rural west, Plaid Cymru have four; and in the rest of the country there is no overall control. Like much of the rest of Britain, the cost of living crisis and Partygate contributed towards a terrible night for Conservatives, who lost their only council, in Monmouthshire in the south-east, and lost 86 councillors overall.
Welsh Labor did well, returning 66 councillors. The party gained control of two councils, while some of its most significant advances were against the Conservatives in Monmouth and Denbighshire. While not gaining control of either council, Labor overtook the Tories as the largest party in both. Denbighshire was symbolic of Tory gains made in the 2019 general election in the north-east, a former Labor stronghold. So these losses suggest those recent gains for the Tours may well be fleeting.
The Welsh Labor leader, Mark Drakeford, and the Conservatives’ Andrew RT Davies have pointed to the UK government to make sense of their respective losses and gains, blaming the damage done to the Conservative party’s image, and the dissatisfaction of Welsh voters with how things are being done in Westminster.
Plaid Cymru, the explicitly pro-independence party, has held a “green wall” of sorts in west Wales, but the party has struggled to make advances outside this area. Part of that challenge may be that Welsh Labor is not a hardline unionist foil for Plaid to define itself against.
After all, Drakeford, as the first minister, pushed the limits of devolution in ways during the pandemic, briefly limiting travel from England and “enforcing” the Welsh border for the first time in eight centuries. He has also made the case for constitutional reform to the structure of the union; The reform that would, according to the ideas set out in Reforming our Union – a 2019 document published by the Welsh government – strengthen the UK through further and deeper de-centralisation, including devolving key areas of policing and justice to Wales.
Welsh Labor is now home to pro-independence currents such as Labor for an Independent Wales, a group supporting “socialism through independence”. A 2020 YouGov and Yes Cymru poll suggested that as many as 39% of Labor voters might support independence in a referendum.
But perhaps the parts of the map with the most interesting story to tell are the swathes of gray – areas in the east and south west where no single party has won a majority. The Lib Dems picked up councillors in the wilds of Powys, and the Green party returned eight councillors in seven councils, establishing themselves for the first time in Wales.
But what’s really notable is the 316, at time of writing, independent councillors who continue to represent a large number of the seats, effectively making them the second largest party in Wales. The tradition of independent candidates, strong still in rural areas such as Pembroke, is in many ways the result of the structural differences between local and general elections that make it easier for an independent candidate to be elected at this level. This allows protest candidates standing on local issues to break through. History and voting tradition weigh heavily on many in Wales; by the same token, standing as an independent can allow individuals of particular political leanings to distance themselves from national parties whose brands may be toxic locally.
With the next general election in mind, Labor in Wales will be pleased with where it stands at the end of the locals. Drakeford has clearly risen to prominence through his leadership during the pandemic, offering a strong contrast to the Tory leadership in Westminster. However, he is not the leader who will be the national face of Labor in 2024. Most voters in Wales still see politics through the lens of Westminster, and Keir Starmer can’t expect enthusiasm for Drakeford to simply be transferred on to himself when that next crucial general election comes round.