So what about the minor parties?
One feature of the past 10 years has been the growing willingness of the voters to vote for minor parties. This has been seen at both local level, and at Parliamentary level, with the election of Dr. Richard Taylor, George Galloway, and Peter Law in 2005.
These are not old-style Independents (often Conservatives by another name), nor are they the Residents and Ratepayers Associations that still feature in some authorities. They are more likely to be candidates running against an unpopular authority, or to highlight a local grievance, or alternatively, national parties identified with a single issue that strikes a chord among some voters.
Among the minor parties, there are now a â€œbig fourâ€ (Greens, Respect, BNP, and UKIP). Three of those at least, can look forward to a further advance on May 4th.
The Greens are fielding 1,300 candidates. They must have high hopes of adding to their single councillor in London. Lewisham, Hackney, Islington, Camden and Haringey all offer the prospect of gains, from the urban intellectual voters who have been alienated from Labour. Outside London, they have a good chance in authorities such as Oxford City, Kirklees, Bradford, Manchester, and Sheffield, among such voters.
The British National Party are fielding 340 candidates, five times as many as in 2002. In five local by-elections this year, their candidates have averaged 19% of the vote. The good publicity achieved for the party by Nick Griffinâ€™s acquittal, and continued concern among some voters over Islamic militancy, should ensure they obtain a significant vote in Metropolitan boroughs in West Yorkshire, and the West Midlands, as well as a number of authorities on the edge of Greater London. Their chances of winning seats in Barking and Dagenham will have been boosted by the fact that only 26 out of 51 seats are being fought by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. As against that, there is plainly a big anti-BNP vote which may limit their gains.
Respect should win seats in Newham and Tower Hamlets, and possibly Birmingham and some other authorities with large Muslim populations. In Tower Hamlets, they may even emerge as the largest party on the Council. However, their support is concentrated almost exclusively on wards which have large Muslim populations.
UKIP will probably not perform that well on May 4th. Their record in local elections is patchy. They have not yet realised that, for a minor party to gain ground locally, it must concentrate its resources on a relatively small number of wards, and work such wards year after year. The tactics that have brought the party such success at European elections fail to work at local council level. Nonetheless, they may pick up the odd seat here and there.
Last nightâ€™s by-elections were all in authorities which are not being contested on May 4th.
Alnwick DC Alnmouth and Lesbury: Lib Dem 300, Ind 225, C 168, Ind 76. Lib Dem gain from Con. No real conclusion can be drawn, given the large independent vote.
Blaby DC- North Whetstone: C 298, Lib Dem 265, Lab 96. A narrow Conservative hold. Again, the absence of an independent from last time makes comparison hard.
Boston BC – Old Leake and Wrangle: C 366, Ukip 115, Lab 99, Lib Dem 83.
A solid Conservative win, but also a fairly good showing from UKIP in an area where they polled very well in 2004.
Lincoln CC – Boston Coastal: C 800, Ukip 217, Lab 205, Lib Dem 160. Another good Conservative win. UKIPâ€™s vote share was down on 2005, but they will be pleased with second place.
Bromsgrove DC – Wythall South: C 526, Ratepayers and Residents 165, Lab 49.
Copeland BC – Cleator Moor North: Lab 307, C 191. Lab gain from Ind, but in an area which is very strongly Labour.
Copeland BC – Gosforth: C 264, Lab 85, Lib Dem 62. An easy Conservative win.
Copeland BC – Hensingham: Lab 385, C 207, Lib Dem 38. Lab hold.
Durham CC – Shadforth and Sherburn: Lib Dem 658, Lab 625, C 67. Lib Dem hold. Labourâ€™s strong performance here suggests that they will recover ground here next year.
Vale of White Horse DC – Kennington and South Hinksey: Lib Dem 771, C 577. Lib Dem hold.
Wealden DC – Crowborough North: C 417, Lib Dem 138, Ind 103, Lab 94, Ind 45. Con Hold.
Wellingborough BC – Hemmingwell: C 885, Lab 455, Green 62, Ukip 45 . Con hold.
Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough – Sunninghill and South Ascot: C 1039, Lib Dem 679. Con hold.
Sean is a Tory activist in London and a long-standing contributor to the site.