Jacob Williams
Thursday, 30th June, 2022

Ballot box dodgers

Ballot box dodgers

Some quite fairly anticipated my post-election writeup much sooner. It’s delayed and won’t cover many contests, but my pre-election preview wasn’t too wide of the mark.

I’ve been preoccupied with a few things since then, including recently Wimbledon and, over the past few months, a nasty sciatica flare up – the worst in years, all linked to serious disc issues.

My last bad episode like this was in 2018, following which I made my first visit to the tennis courts on that year’s St. David’s Day, which I recounted on this very blog.

In reference to my “deer-on-ice-like attempts at knockabouts,” I said: “Think less Boris Becker and more Boris Johnson.”

Four years on, and, how interesting it is to revisit the plights of the two Borises.

One’s a naughty boy now serving at her majesty’s pleasure, and the other’s a three-time former Wimbledon champ…

Although I didn’t get around to it prior to Pembrokeshire County Council’s 2022 election last month, in my preview blogpost I said I might do a bit of analysis of those councillors – almost a third – who were returned without a contest.

Nineteen of sixty councillors – yours truly among them – were elected unopposed, the second-highest number at a Welsh council behind only Gwynedd’s 28 of 69.

Neighbouring Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion saw only one of 75 and five of 38 councillors avoiding a vote respectively.

High numbers of unopposed returns is often claimed to be suggestive of voter apathy, or disinterest. It’s also historically been associated with the term “democratic deficit.”

What most people mean by voter apathy, I think, might more accurately be referred to as candidate apathy when referenced in the context of unopposed councillors.

That’s because it relates to the appetites of contenders contesting rather than voters voting, which itself might be evidenced by particularly low turnout, which wasn’t the case at this election anyway.

It’s not immediately obvious that anything other than a lack of desire for change is to blame for the absence of opposition against the nineteen councillors, the two most senior of whom have served on the council since its 1995 inception.

A win’s a win, of course, but the evidence for 2022 clearly demonstrates that being unopposed was the preserve of those with high showings when last tested electorally.

All three members of what I called 2017’s “700 club” – councillors who polled higher than that many votes – were re-elected unopposed this year: Simon Hancock (763) me (730) and Tony Wilcox (727) along with honorary 700-club member for St. Dogmaels, Mike James who netted 694 votes in 2017.

Boundary changes introduced at this election to address the large disparity in ward sizes, is probably a good reason why the 700 club has no 2022 inductees.

Not unexpectedly, all unopposed candidates this year were incumbents, but interestingly: all achieved an absolute majority when last tested at the ballot box, whether that was in 2017 (notable for its number of slim winning margins and plurality victors) or for five of them, 2012.

The following is the list of 2022’s unopposed councillors in descending order of their most recent vote share percentage, followed by their majority as a percentage of that contest’s total vote, grouped by the year it was held:

Last opposed in 2017:

Simon Hancock (Neyland East) – 90.6% (81.2%)
Tony Wilcox (Lab, Pembroke Dock Pennar) – 75.3% (50.5%)
Jacob Williams (ind, East Williamston) – 75.1% (50.2%)
David Howlett (Con, Wiston) – 72.7% (45.5%)
Paul Miller (Lab, Neyland West) – 71.2% (42.4%)
Mike James (ind, St Dogmaels) – 69.8% (51.4%)
Diane Clements* (Con, Martletwy) – 69.2% (38.4%)
Pat Davies (ind, Fishguard North West) – 67.3% (45.2%)
Steve Yelland (Con, Rudbaxton) – 64.2% (45.4%)
Brian Hall (ind, Pembroke Dock Market) – 58.1% (16.3%)
Michelle Bateman* (ind, Letterston) – 55.6% (32.8%)
Vivien Stoddart (ind, Milford Hubberston) – 54.8% (29.8%)
Tim Evans (ind, Haverfordwest Portfield) – 54% (29.4%)
John Cole* (ind, Merlin’s Bridge) – 52.3% (28.1%)

Last opposed in 2012:

John Davies (ind, Cilgerran) – 93.6% (87.3%)
David Bryan (Con, Haverfordwest Priory) – 86.9% (73.8%)
Elwyn Morse (ind, Narberth Rural) – 84.4% (68.9%)
Michael Williams (PC, Tenby North) – 77.3% (54.6%)
Guy Woodham (Lab, Milford East) – 61.9% (23.9%)

[*Di Clements, Michelle Bateman and John Cole were not only newly-elected in 2017, but they all performed the rare feat (as Paul Miller and I did in 2012) of comfortably unseating incumbents.]

The trend is clear – and with no outliers. These councillors’ average vote share at their most recent election is 70.2% (mean) and 69.8% (median) and for their majorities it’s 47.1% and 45.4% respectively.

Their political affiliations are diverse, not unrepresentative of the chamber post or pre-election, whilst the geographic distribution and urbanity/rurality of their seats is similarly mixed.

One of the more obvious theories as to why the unopposed cohort is made up of well-established incumbents is that a pretender fears the task of dethroning them – but the trend was not nearly as strong among the thirteen candidates unopposed in 2017’s election.

Perhaps the key difference is that 2017 was an election producing a rather big shake-up in the council’s composition and, consequently, its administration – and which remains roughly the same to this day.

Some of the contests

PCC’s 2022 election didn’t result in much change to the political makeup of the authority, nor did it give any party a clear mandate for political control.

The highest profile casualties both went into the poll as serving cabinet members: Lib Dem Bob Kilmister, and Plaid Cymru’s Cris Tomos.

Coincidentally the last election in 2017 also saw two cabinet members lose their seats, albeit in different circumstances.

There had been speculation that they were both up against it. Kilmister had served the Dinas Cross ward since 2008 and was known as ‘Budget Bob’ since his 2017 appointment to the cabinet’s finance portfolio.

In this role it’s possible he may have been so closely associated with certain of the 2017-2022 administration’s pecuniary policies that it proved an electoral liability.

Tomos was first elected for the Crymych ward in 2017, and was cabinet member for environmental matters and the Welsh language.

They both stood in wards largely changed by new boundaries implemented at the election, which I believe both saw as unfavourable.

Also in common is that their successors – Cllrs. Delme Harries and Shon Rees, both elected as independents – have joined Cllr. Jamie Adams’ IPG, or the oxymoronic independent political group, as it’s also been known.

Whilst it didn’t produce the biggest casualty, perhaps the most surprising result for me was in the Kilgetty and Begelly ward.

I can’t complain at getting it so wrong because I don’t think any crystal ball could have predicted what happened.

Not just at incumbent David Pugh’s third placing, but Lib Dem winner Alistair Cameron’s quite astonishing 52% vote share in this five-horse-race.

So many times we see wards where the sitting councillor is opposed by so many, that he (and it is always a he) comes through unscathed thanks to vote-splitting.

Perhaps the best example of this in 2022 was the victory of Reg Owens, who, in a newly-redrawn St. Ishmaels ward, clung on – as I anticipated in my little sweepstake on the side!

It was the best election in years for the Lib Dems – doubling to two, Alec Cormack having also unseated a sitting member, Tony Baron (Conservative) in the new Amroth and Saundersfoot North ward.

That this was the first election in a long time to finally give the Lib Dems enough councillors to formally constitute a political group on the authority must be a sad twist for displaced Kilmister, who was the party’s sole rep for over a decade.

Going into his election in Solva was a very confident Mark Carter. But at the count, I’m not sure who looked more shocked and glum with the outcome – Tory Carter or his sole opponent, Labour’s Joshua Phillips.

Carter barely clung on by nine, all the more painful for the Labour contingent because I have reason to suspect they felt this seat was irredeemably falling from their grasp. Not from the outset, but as the election progressed.

Even if they deny that they wrote their chances off in Solva, with it being a single-digit loss they’d have to agree that a pedal-to-the-metal approach in this ward – or even a last push – could have been enough to get their man through.

Perhaps a similar story of inattention, but for opposite reasons, played out in the Johnston ward.

Labour were quite confident of a victory, here. I must admit that I, too, had their candidate Daniel Metcalf as the winner, but he was second to the Conservatives’ Aled Thomas by just three votes – the fewest of any contest this cycle.

The number of rejected votes in Johnston was also equal to Thomas’ margin of victory.

Such fine margins prove the old cliche about every vote counting. Just six votes cast differently would have seen two more Labour councillors and two fewer Tories on the council.

Nonetheless, these two main national parties can both say they had a decent election – but the Conservatives, given the partygate backdrop, probably had the best, all things considered, as their performance went well against the national trend.

Pembrokeshire politics is a funny old thing, and this was perhaps best summed up by the retiring Monkton councillor, Pearl Llewellyn.

On learning that the two councillors elected to replace her in the new multi-member Monkton and St Mary South ward were both Tories, Pearl’s comical outburst at the count is unprintable.

That the Tories won both of these seats nearly had JW repeating Pearl’s f-words – as it lost me a bet with Labour group leader, Cllr. Paul Miller.

The unopposed member for Neyland West was correct in his hunch that this new seat – the county’s only multi-member division – would go to members of the same party.

Incidentally, Miller’s Neyland in 2022 follows Tenby in 2017 as a Pembrokeshire town whose county councillors went unopposed – Simon Hancock being returned for Neyland East, this time as a Labour candidate.

The most badly bruised party of the election is easily Plaid Cymru.

They not only went from six councillors to two, but lost three sitting members: the aforementioned cabinet member Cris Tomos, Jon Preston (who’s been in since 2012) and Paul Rapi (first elected but for a different ward in 2017.)

Switching wards and going up against a prominent opponent in mayor Sam Skyrme-Blackhall was always a fight for Rapi. That she was independent and he was Plaid Cymru, I think only made his uphill struggle steeper.

But it doesn’t mean he has no political future – one rather suspects a retiring Cllr. Michael Williams will, one day, leave Rapi to contest the Tenby North ward, if ever that day comes!

Having pushed some populist themes over the past few years – which might work well on social media echo chambers – Plaid Cymru would have to wonder what support they have to build on in the test that matters: the ballot box.

Having thrown the kitchen sink at him for the third consecutive election, the Tories finally bested Preston – with the caveat that this time it was in a new ward largely affected by boundary changes.

Adding to Preston’s woes must be how his defeat by 73 votes to Rhys Jordan this year is exactly the same margin by which he fended off the Tories’ 2017 runner.

There is no doubt that nasty ward boundary changes for both Tomos and Preston were highly disadvantageous. But that only gets Plaid Cymru so far.

The party lost badly, regardless. Crucially: both north and south of the Landsker, leaving questions over their support here and indeed in the rest of Wales.

This is something some of their candidates were obviously alert to – evidenced by their attempts to not mention, or downplay, their party affiliations on promotional literature.

In fairness, I’ve pointed out that some Conservatives were up to this business too – but they had more obvious reasons for such shyness than candidates of Plaid Cymru, whose baggage isn’t of the Tories’ sleazy variety.

Plaid Cymru’s slump in Pembrokeshire, admittedly from a small base, is especially significant among the bigger picture in Wales, which doesn’t point to a runaway success, either.

Losing six seats overall – four of them in Pembrokeshire – the party consolidated its already strong positions in places like Gwynedd and neighbouring Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, the latter of which where it gained overall control whilst losing its group leader’s seat.

Milford Haven’s Cllr. Rhys Sinnett (who fended off a challenge by neighbouring town incumbent, Stephen Joseph) has now been promoted to the cabinet.

Cllr. Sinnett’s also the Plaid Cymru group’s new leader, taking over from Tenby North councillor Michael Williams.

A clearly furious Cllr. Williams has given his own account of Plaid Cymru’s shellacking to the Herald, which I highly recommend to readers.

Titled “The Party of Wales has Failed us,” it’s perhaps most interesting for where it doesn’t lay blame.

The ‘us,’ incidentally, referring not to Wales or her people, but Cllr. Williams’ defeated councillor colleagues.

A large portion of the blame is heaped on the party’s Senedd leader, Adam Price MS, and his “hammer blow” which “destroyed the Party’s credibility in Pembrokeshire and made us in Pembrokeshire look like total chumps.”

What Cllr. Williams maintains was a wrecking ball, was Price’s pre-election announcement of his position that the local health board’s new super hospital “should be based around the existing facility at Glangwili” in neighbouring Carmarthenshire.

Cllr. Williams’ claim that this “stabbed each and every one of [the losing] councillors in the back” – two of whom, as he points out: “had built-up support in one of the most Anglicised areas in Wales” – is rather difficult to reconcile.

It’s true that the controversial discussions over healthcare reorganisation in this area reared their head again just before the election, but Labour candidates surely had much greater reason to fear this as a big electoral liability locally.

That Welsh Labour – as the party of devolved government responsible for healthcare in Wales – did decently in Pembrokeshire (gaining three seats and, as I said, but for six votes could have gained five) rather weakens any suggestion that Plaid Cymru’s rejection was related to unpopular policy positions on healthcare provision.

Elsewhere, Milford Haven’s Mike and Viv Stoddart are once again PCC’s only husband and wife councillor team, having been joined for the last term by the Tudors.

Alison, the wife of Cllr. Tom Tudor (Labour, Haverfordwest Castle) may have stood down this time, but Tom’s still among family – now joined in the chamber by his sister, Bethan Price.

The success of the unaffiliated independent – who unseated another, in St. David’s ward’s ten-year incumbent David Lloyd – creates possibly PCC’s first serving sibling duo.

Some other results of note included Pembroke’s St Michael ward, in which incumbent Conservative councillor Aden Brinn was defeated by unaffiliated independent Mel Phillips – despite the party gaining a seat at the other end of the town.

Brinn held it from a 2007 by-election to 2012, when defeated, but was re-elected in a 2017 rerun. As I said to him at last month’s count: I’m not aware of any other councillor who’s come back from defeat at PCC – so he’ll surely be aiming for the double at the earliest opportunity!

Only the true anoraks will have reached this far, so, on a final number-crunching note: of the 2017 intake, Cllr. Michelle Bateman was narrowly the largest majority-holder (raw votes) with 575, above Cllr. Di Clements, who, with 69.2% held the same crown in percentage terms. (Both went on to be unopposed this time.)

In boxing terms, these ladies’ accolades were reunified in 2022 – as they were when I held them in 2012 – by new Narberth councillor, Marc Tierney (Labour.)

Succeeding Vic Dennis, the party’s single-term retiree, Tierney’s 74% vote share earnt him a majority of 337 votes, or 48.8% in percentage terms.

One comment...

  • Martin Lewis

    Good effort Jacob. Very in-depth but interesting.

  • Have your say...