Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 13:35 UK

Changing face of Welsh councils

By Guto Thomas
Political correspondent

Cardiff City Hall
There are more than 1,200 council seats up for grabs across Wales

In the unlikely event that Martian psephologists were to visit Wales for the first time in a decade, they would be in for quite a shock.

Because the political map of Wales today bears very little resemblance to the old, unchanging face of its past.

Before devolution in 1999, Labour remained in control of well over half of Wales' 22 county councils, and was a significant force in a handful of others.

But this dominance was gravely undermined in 1999, as Plaid Cymru won control of both Caerphilly and Rhondda Cynon Taf - and despite a successful campaign to regain these councils in 2004, Labour paid a heavy price by losing control of Bridgend, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to the Liberal Democrats and their allies.

Moreover, the Conservatives returned from the political dead to control Monmouthshire and (for a while at least) the Vale of Glamorgan - with the rise of coalition politics in every part of Wales heralding the realisation that there could after all be a political alternative to Labour.

The decline in Labour's dominance is also clear, if you analyse the percentage of councillors elected for each party in the 1,264 local seats.

WELSH COUNCIL ELECTION CANDIDATES 2008
Mayoral chain
Labour: 27%
Conservatives: 16%
Plaid Cymru: 16%
Liberal Democrats: 13%
Independents: 22%
Others: 6%
Figures are rounded up or down and total may not equal 100%
Between 1999 and 2004, Labour's numbers fell from 42.7% to 37.8% - with the Lib Dems (11.2%) and Conservatives (8.8%) enjoying an increase of some 3% each in 2004.

Plaid saw its numbers fall in 2004 to 13.8% after huge gains in 1999 - but it's also worth remembering that more than a quarter of Wales' councillors in 1999 and again in 2004 were elected as independents.

Classifying independents as a group is - by definition - extremely problematic.

In fact, there is a huge variety of individuals and groups operating under this title - and one of the tasks faced by the main political parties in the 2008 election has been to persuade as many as possible to show their true political colours at the ballot box.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases, this attempt to "de-independentise" candidates in more rural areas has had some success.

'Independent independents'

However, in other parts of Wales, there has been a clear increase in the number of independent candidates and groupings.

This more urban "rise of the independents" can be seen in the South Wales Valleys, with 20 "People's Voice" candidates in Blaenau Gwent and nine others in Torfaen - although in many cases, it seems bizarre that these organised independents are fighting against a plethora of what might be described as "more independent independents" as well as against Labour.

In Swansea too, there's an identifiable choice for voters between the "official Independents" (who have previously been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) or other independents and smaller parties such as the Greens.

WELSH COUNCILLORS' PROFILE
In 2004 142 Welsh councillors (11.2%) were elected unopposed
In 2008 102 (8%) will be elected unopposed
Average age in 2004 and 2008 is 61
At least six councils have no member younger than 35
Fewer than 10% of councillors are under 45
Over 40% are of pensionable age
Male / female ratio: 78% / 22%
The two most significant of the other smaller parties or groups in Wales represent two totally different ends of the political spectrum, with Llais Gwynedd aiming to unsettle Plaid Cymru in its old heartlands, and the British National Party (BNP) fielding 28 candidates - including nine in Conwy, seven in Wrexham, and another four in Swansea.

However, in terms of candidates, the smaller parties combined make up only about 6% of the total.

One of the more unsavoury aspects of the system has been the ability of so many councillors to be "elected" to public office without any opposition, including 44 in Powys and 36 in Gwynedd.

While uncontested seats remain a problem, there are signs that things may be getting better.

This pattern reflects a number of factors linked to a tradition of strong Independents, party dominance, and sparse population bases - but in other council areas where there have been tough battles for political control (such as Swansea, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Newport, and the Vale of Glamorgan) there has been a contest to win every single seat in 2004 and again in 2008.

One of the things that should change - but somehow has not yet - is the age profile and gender balance of Welsh councillors.

For the visiting Martian psephologist this at least, may provide a small sliver of silver lining - because even though the colours on the Welsh political map are changing rapidly, the faces and the types of councillors we tend to elect, remain (so far at least) largely unchanged.


WELSH COUNCIL ELECTIONS 2008

  Councillors Councils
Party +/- Total +/- Total
LAB -124 342 -6 2
CON 63 174 1 2
PC 31 205 -1 0
LD 21 162 0 0
OTH 9 381 0 0
NOC - - 6 18
22 of 22 councils declared.

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