The Coming Year
Throughout 2007, the Conservatives have held a small, but steady, opinion poll lead over Labour, for the first time since 1992. The Liberal Democrats have faltered in opinion polls (although have had two outstanding by-elections), and the minor parties have achieved record levels of support (16% according to the latest Yougov poll).
Local elections have proved somewhat different. In these, the Conservatives have established a big lead over Labour (13% in May, and 15% in by-elections since September). The Liberal Democrats have seen their vote fall slightly from its record high, in 2004, but still obtained 25% in May, and have done slightly better in by-elections since then.
The performance of the minor parties, however, does reflect their showing in opinion polls. The Green Party took 5% of the vote, overall, in May, despite contesting well under half of the wards which came up. The British National Party won 3% of the vote, despite contesting less than 10% of the wards. The Greensâ€™ success was particularly striking in London, where the party won 8% of the vote, while contesting only 57% of the wards.
It is likely that the Conservatives will achieve a national equivalent vote share of 40% in May 2007. This would be their best result since 1992, and would match their best performances in the 1980s. However, it would still be below the sort of vote shares they achieved in 1975-79 (45-50%) , and those which Labour achieved in 1994-97 (43-47%). Nevertheless, it would be sufficient to win the Conservatives at least another 500 council seats, and probably another 10-20 authorities.
Labour, by contrast, should perform poorly. Labourâ€™s national equivalent vote share in May was just 26%, and recent local by-elections show it slipping from that figure, particularly in the South of England. Many of Labourâ€™s remaining council groups in the South, in places like Wycombe, Dacorum, Dover, Salisbury, and Dartford are likely to be reduced to a handful, or even wiped out completely, in much the same way as the Conservatives were wiped out in several Northern cities in the 1990s. Labourâ€™s support should hold up better in the North, but even there, several of their authorities, such as Barnsley, and Wigan, look very shaky. Labourâ€™s vote share could fall to as little as 22-23%, which compares with the 25% won by the Conservatives in 1995, their worst ever year.
The Liberal Democrats will probably continue the pattern of most local elections since 1998; namely, losing seats to the Conservatives, but gaining them from Labour, leaving their overall total roughly unchanged.
It has been interesting to watch them change at local level (but increasingly national level) from being a rural and suburban opposition to the Conservatives to being an urban opposition to Labour.
It is unlikely that they will win less than 25% of the national vote, thus outpolling Labour. If they do so again, in 2008, there must be a chance that they will push Labour into third place, in terms of local council seats. They last achieved second place in 1996-99, when the Conservatives were third.
The Green party are likely to continue their advance, in places like Brighton, Oxford, Bradford, Sheffield, and Stroud. In urban areas, they now appeal to a similar electorate to the Liberal Democrats; young, affluent, well-educated, non-religious, and concerned about the environment. Indeed, it must be frustrating for the Liberal Democrats to see many of the natural supporters voting Green. Arguably, support for the Greens cost the Liberal Democrats control of Islington, Haringey and Camden councils in May.
The BNP look set to continue their advance in local government elections. They are currently winning an average of 17% in local by-elections. Rising concern over immigration, and high profile cases, such as the murder of PC Beshenshivsky, should enable them to make further gains in West Yorkshire, East Lancashire, the West Midlands, and parts of the M25 corridor.
Finally, UKIP may or may not get their act together in terms of fighting local elections. They are rumoured to be planning to fight a record number of seats in the South West, where they achieved some reasonable votes in 2005, but they may be replicating their mistake in general elections, of fighting too many seats, rather than concentrating their resources on a few.
There are no local by-elections until 18th January 2007.
Sean Fear is a London Tory activist