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The man who started his own political party and now rules the roost in Uplands

By Richard Youle

Minutes after sitting down with council election winner Peter May, I found myself increasingly pulled into the off-beat world of the Uplands Party leader. Restaurant-bar Verve 37 happened to be the venue in which I was transported to Cllr May's apolitical Narnia, where national politics has no place and new possibilities seem to open up. Slightly madcap quotes appeared in shorthand in my notebook, and time flew by.

The next morning Cllr May sent me YouTube videos of the some of the work achieved by the party - named after the Swansea ward it represents - complete with jaunty soundtracks. A speeded-up one of him clearing a road drain with The Good Life theme tune playing particularly caught my eye. No, it wasn't all a dream. Unlike CS Lewis's fictional Narnia, Cllr May's Uplands Party is very much real. It is unashamedly pro-Uplands. National politics is given a wide berth.

Officially registered with the Electoral Commission in 2016, the party gained two of Uplands's four seats in the 2017 council elections and then completed a clean sweep at last Friday's count in the city's Guildhall, snatching the other two seats from Labour. I imagine a grin emanating from Cllr May, who won't have forgotten Swansea Labour leader Rob Stewart's description of the Uplands Party in a budget speech a couple of years ago, with a hint of sarcasm, as "that great force in British politics".

READ MORE: Swansea local election result 2022: Labour holds onto power

Cllr May, whose recollection of dates is almost frightening, seems to have found a home after a number of forays into national politics. The 53-year-old proudly noted he beat the Monster Raving Loony party by four votes in 1999 when he stood as a prospective MP for the Equal Parenting Party in the Kensington and Chelsea by-election. Conservative MP Michael Portillo won.

In that year he also stood for Uplands as a neighbourhood independent in the council elections. He finished 11th but beat the Conservative candidate and future Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, by two votes.

He first became a councillor in Swansea in 2004, representing the Liberal Democrats. Six years later he was the Lib-Dem candidate for Swansea West in the General Election and finished second to Labour's Geraint Davies by 504 votes. "I don't know who had the luckier escape - Parliament or me!" he said.

Cllr May lost his Uplands councillor seat in 2012 but regained it in a by-election three years later - this time as an independent - although he hadn't planned to stand. "I wasn't really interested, but a couple of days before the nomination forms had to be in, residents came to my house with a form filled in," said Cllr May. The choice, it seemed, had been made for him. "I didn't do any canvassing, I didn't expect to win," he said. "I didn't even go to the count."

The concept for the Uplands Party was born in a pub after a Swansea City away match. "On February 28, 2016, me and my son had just been to see the Swans at Tottenham," said Cllr May. "We were sitting at the Shakespeare pub in Victoria, and we were talking about how we could improve Uplands. We made some enquiries about how we could form a political party, and contacted the Electoral Commission."

Cllr May and his son Ewan - then 18 - decided to create the single-ward party and name it accordingly. A logo was rustled up, and on November 30, 2016, the Uplands Party officially came into being. According to Cllr May, the official he dealt with at the Electoral Commission said he wasn't aware of a party being named after the ward it represented anywhere else.

The following year, Cllr May, his son, Irene Mann and Rhys Morgan stood for election for in Uplands for the party, with May elder and Mrs Mann elected, along with two Labour candidates. "We joked that it was party law that your surname must start with 'm'," said Cllr May, often ending his sentences with a "yeah" to ensure I was following. "Our manifesto was based on the work I had done since 2014 and our aspirations, which were completely localised.

"We thought this experiment was a concept that people liked, so this time (2022) we approached the election in a more business-like manner. We knocked on doors, with our rosettes, and worked on the relationships we had built up with people. We are totally apolitical nationally - we don't carry any of that baggage. Everything is Uplands-based."

He said if voters asked him about national issues at the doorstep, he replied: "Sorry, we're not going there." He raised his arms, palms facing me, to illustrate the point. "We stand for localism, and a genuine desire to improve the area from the ground upwards," said Cllr May. "If you get the nuts and bolts right, other things will follow."

Asked if councillors from other parties and groups would say they stood for basically the same thing, Cllr May said: "They would say that." He said Uplands Party candidates were "characters", with three out of the four current councillors having experienced traditional party politics and ending up disillusioned.

Uplands Party councillors Peter May, Stuart Rice and Sandra Joy at the election count on May 6 - colleague Allan Jeffery couldn't be there as he was in hospital (Richard Youle)

He said previous ideas of his and Cllr Mann's had been replicated across the city, including the decorating of benches, the painting of utility boxes, and the cleaning of roadside gulleys when the road in question was closed for resurfacing.

With Cllr Mann standing down this year, as planned, Cllr May has been joined by former Lib-Dem councillor and cabinet member Stuart Rice, Sandra Joy and Allan Jeffery as the Uplands Party elected representatives. "I've got three very like-minded people, and I like to think Uplands is the best ward in the city," he said.

The 12-page Uplands Party manifesto had a long list of things it said it had done, and what it would do. The party surveys Uplands residents every June, asking a key question and general questions about the area. The results shape the party's priorities and policies. One recent key question was about a potential council cycle route through Uplands, down Walter Road and into the city.

"The results were split but the clear message was that it mustn't chop down trees or lead to a loss of parking," said Cllr May. "It is a technical engineering problem. Also, it would have to be a dedicated cycle lane. One thing I'm not in favour of is shared-use paths, and that also came across. We are looking at alternative routes - that's a discussion."

The father-of-three, who works full-time outside of his councillor role, said he supported cycle routes, providing all users were accounted for. He said the Uplands Party had teamed up with Swansea's Environment Centre to provide a bike repair station, with another one due to follow.

Plenty to smile about for Cllr Peter May (Richard Youle)

Uplands is a mix of students, families, professionals, social housing tenants, and many businesses. Its population exceeds 15,000, and the restaurants and bars on Uplands Crescent are popular for a night out.

Cllr May rejected a suggestion that the Uplands Party has got an issue with students. "I have done a lot of work with student tenants, helping with safety, and assisted many of them during the pandemic," he said. "Eighteen months ago we were trying to get a joint multi-use games area with the university, but we couldn't get a site for it."

Cllr May said he had pushed for inclusion of a "no sandwiching" rule in the council's last houses of multiple occupation (HMO) planning policy - meaning that a year-round resident can't be flanked on both sides by an HMO. The manifesto has pledged to strengthen the HMO policy.

He said a particular priority for residents was the cleanliness of the streets, and he has promised to employ a full-time cleaning operative for the ward - paid from his and his colleagues' community budget - on top of the cleanliness service provided by the council. He also supported the roll-out, if feasible, of electric vehicle charging points on lampposts.

Did he expect the single-ward party idea to be replicated in Swansea, I asked. "It will be horses for courses - whether local people in that area like it," he said. "You need to grow it - it does take a lot of work."

And how would a council function if councillors only focused on their patch? He said he supposed they would form groups, effectively reverting to the current party system but he said the Uplands Party wanted to play a more active council-wide role and that it would, with its greater share of the overall councillor numbers, participate more in council committee work.

Independent councillors will rightly say they are fully focused on their patch. Seldom does Penllergaer councillor Wendy Fitzgerald, of the Independents@Swansea group, miss an opportunity to mention her ward at meetings, for example. But it seems the Uplands Party has developed something of a brand.

After leaving Verve 37 I agreed to pop into Cllr May's house on Finsbury Terrace to pick up some Uplands Party literature. His daughter was keen to head off to her dance class - her dad was keen I had everything I needed before we said our goodbyes. After taking another photo I left Cllr May - the party leader free from the shackles of national politics.

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