So what will be at stake in next May’s elections?
Next year, there will be local elections in 345 local authorities in England and Scotland. In total, around 12,000 council seats, more than half the total, are being fought.
Year two of a Parliament usually produces worse local election results for the governing party than year one. In both 1999, and 2003, the Labour vote share was 2-3% lower than in the preceding year. If that is again the case in May 2007, this implies a Labour vote share of under 25%. Labour will probably poll a smaller vote share than the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives will poll at, or just above, 40%.
Most seats were last contested in 2003, when the national equivalent vote shares were Conservative 35%, Labour 30%, and Lib Dem 27%. The rest were contested in 2004, when the respective shares were 38%, 26%, and 30%. Labour can therefore expect hefty losses, and the Conservatives can expect big gains, mainly from Labour, but also from the Liberal Democrats.
Labour is likely to lose its last vestiges of control in the South of England, outside London, with the exceptions of Reading and Stevenage. Gravesham must be regarded as a certain loss, while the Labour groups on several councils in the Thames Estuary, Kent, Hertfordshire and East Anglia will disappear. Elsewhere, Labour is vulnerable in councils that it would once have seen as strongholds such as Blackburn & Darwen, Wigan, Sheffield, Oldham, Telford & Wrekin, Barnsley, and South Derbyshire. Scotland will also produce losses for Labour, even if it is able to retain its 2003 vote share, due to the introduction of local elections by the Single Transferable Vote. Labour is certain to lose Edinburgh to no overall control, but should hold on to Glasgow. Overall, Labour could easily lose one third of the 3,000 seats it is defending.
The Conservatives will gain right across the South of England, as they did in May. In the South, they should be looking to take places like Portsmouth, Hart, Winchester, Uttlesford, Ipswich, Dartford, and perhaps also Bournemouth and Windsor and Maidenhead, on the back of their strong performances there in the General Election. Brighton & Hove is also a likely target, although that cityâ€™s long swing to the left may mean they fall short. In the Midlands, they should achieve largest party status in Birmingham, and win a number of districts such as Nuneaton, South Derbyshire, NW Leicestershire, and Boston. In the North, the Conservativesâ€™ best chance of a major outright gain is in Bury, and they may secure an overall majority on North Tyneside (although that remains under a Labour Mayor). The switch to STV makes it unlikely they can win any Scottish authority outright. Overall, the Conservatives must be heading, on present trends, for at least 750 gains next year.
The Liberal Democrats will struggle against the Conservatives in the South, but, as for a number of years, will compensate with gains from Labour in the urban Midlands and North. In the South, Uttlesford, St. Albanâ€™s, Vale of the White Horse, Bournemouth, and Windsor & Maidenhead all look vulnerable. On the other hand, they are almost certain to take outright control of Rochdale, and stand a good chance of winning outright control of Oldham, St. Helenâ€™s, and Luton.
Among minor party candidates, rural Independents will continue their long decline. The Green Party ought to be able to break through the hundred councillor barrier, and are likely to gain in councils with large numbers of urban intellectuals, who are unhappy with Labour, and who wouldnâ€™t contemplate voting Conservative. The British National Party should be able to make further gains from Labour, in West Yorkshire, and the West Midlands, and terminate Labourâ€™s presence on Epping Forest District Council.
Last night saw just two by-elections:-
Oxford CC â€“ Lye Valley: Labour 784, Lib Dem 487, Conservative 150, Green 64. Labour hold. A very good performance from Labour in a seat they held by just 21 votes in 2005
Hyndburn DC â€“ Accrington Spring Hill; Labour 528, Conservative 247. Labour hold.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist and write regularly for PBC