Today sees the sternest test for David Cameron out of any local election he has so far had to face. The 2009 local elections were a complete Conservative triumph. Of the 2,492 councillors elected at those elections, 1,494 (or nearly 60%) were Conservative and apart from Bristol, Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland and Anglesey, the Conservatives are defending majority control in every single council up for election (which make the pitfalls even more dangerous).
At the time of those local elections, the Conservatives were enjoying a lead of 12% over Labour according to the monthly poll conducted by ICM (Con 39%, Lab 27%, Lib Dem 18%, Others 15%). Now, however, it is Labour who are in the lead as shown by the projection made by Prof. Thrasher and Rallings indicating a swing from Con to Lab of 12% and a swing from the Lib Dems to Lab of 13.5% thus confirming that the 2013 county elections will be as bad (if not worse) as the local elections in 2011 and 2012. But just how bad could it be?
The best way of showing is to take a look at the safest, average and most marginal Conservative council and what impact those polls could have on them. First up, the safest, which is Kent. In 2009, the Conservatives dominated Kent, winning 74 seats (out of the 84 available) and racking up 47% of the vote and a 25% lead over the Liberal Democrats. However, a 12% swing to Labour would knock out 22 Conservative held seats including the Deputy Cabinet Member for Education, Learning and Skills (Cllr. Cubitt in Gravesham East) and the Deputy Cabinet Member for Business Strategy, Performance and Health Reform (Cllr. Pugh in Sheerness) and knock out the Lib Dem members for Tunbridge Wells North and Folkestone West (and that is in the safest Conservative council in the land!)
So as we come to the average Conservative council in terms of strength, we come to Shropshire. The Shropshire of 2009 was not the Shropshire of 2005 following the establishment of unitary authority status for the former county, but in terms of the election it went the same way. Conservative win (Con 54, Lib Dem 11, Lab 7, Ind 1, Health Concern 1) and a healthy 28% vote lead for the Conservatives over the Liberal Democrats. But what impact would a 12% swing to Lab have in a county that doesn’t usually elect Labour MP’s? Seventeen Conservative losses would be bad to start off with, but in the case of Shropshire the Conservatives would lose their overall majority. And with Labour fielding more candidates than in past elections you cannot rule out the prospect of a double whammy of Labour gaining several seats from the Liberal Democrats either.
Which leaves the most marginal Conservative controlled council in the land. Derbyshire. It shows just how bad the elections in 2009 were for Labour when Derbyshire (even in the days of Conservative majorities of 144) was a Labour bedrock (as Dennis Skinner MP (Lab, Bolsover) noted in a debate on the county council back in 1992:
In 1985, its Labour majority was bigger than that of the Tories and the people of Derbyshire re-elected it in 1989: they are satisfied with Derbyshire county council’s policies,
But that all came to an end in 2009 when Labour’s vote in the county collapsed from 40% in 2005 to just 28% and managed to lose seventeen seats in the process. But a 12% swing to Lab from Con would see sixteen of those seats come back to the Labour fold with only Belper ward staying Con (but within the margin of error) and coupled to that another five gains from the Liberal Democrats, Derbyshire will be hailed as “returning to the fold”.
Overall, a cursory glance suggests a minimum of 300 net losses for the Conservatives, but the potential disaster does not stop there. As was mentioned yesterday UKIP are polling at (or near to) record highs and with the average estimate that UKIP have the potential to skim 19% of all Conservative votes, that figure of 300 net losses could be very conservative indeed. In fact it everything goes pear shaped for the Coalition, then we could see a 1993 style result with the Conservatives losing to everyone everywhere, Labour mopping up the Liberal Democrats in the north (Northumberland, Durham, Cumbria and Lancashire) and the Liberal Democrats perhaps picking up a few gains from the Conservatives themselves in places like Somerset and the Isle of Wight.
As a result of these elections, there will not be a by-election report on Thursday night, but you are more than welcome to report on them yourselves (and with 44 being held there will be a lot to report on). Come ten o’clock this evening though, I will be focusing on Lincolnshire, Dorset, Essex and Gloucestershire (at least until 1.00am) when I shall go to bed in order to be bright eyed and bushy tailed to report on:
Somerset: A key Conservative / Liberal Democrat battleground where the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to regain control after losing it four years ago, but with UKIP fielding candidates in several battleground wards and a deferred election to be held on May 16th, will anyone be able to declare victory? Results expected by 10.00am
Isle of Anglesey: For years, Anglesey has had it’s name dragged through the mud with claim and counter claim making any government on the island impossible. The Assembly’s response? Boundary changes and multi member wards. But with 11 of the 21 sitting Independents re-nominated will the scheme work? Declaration by midday
Warwickshire: A true swing county which if the polls are to be believed will see a former MP take his seat in county hall as Bill Olner (former Lab MP for Nuneaton) stands in the Nuneaton, Arbury and Stockingford ward. But how will UKIP fare in Stratford district where a Lib Dem in 2009 is now standing for the Conservatives? Result expected by 2.30pm
Oxfordshire: If UKIP start winning seats here, then David Cameron should be scared witless. His home constituency of Witney has been solid blue for decades and if the Conservatives failed to win control then questions will be asked. Result expected by 4.00pm
Northamptonshire: Northampton North, Wellingborough, Corby. Seats that Labour have to win in order to win an overall majority. If Labour cannot win Northamptonshire, then will the focus switch to Ed Milliband’s leadership? Result expected by 7.00pm
As the results come in I shall be reporting them in the usual manner on Twitter: #Ward name on #council: #Party Vote (% Change on 2009) #Party Status. But every 10% of the seats that declare for each council I will be producing a forecast using the resources of www.ukelect.co.uk and posting it as #Council FORECAST: #Party Seats (Change on 2009) #Party Status