While London and the other big cities are grabbing the media spotlight for the local elections being contested this year the district council elections are also important. The Conservatives are much stronger in the districts than in the cities – and so have much more to lose.
These councils don’t have such large budgets as the counties. But the district councils have a crucial responsibility for increasing the housing supply – the greatest political challenge of our time.
There are plenty of councils being contested where the Conservatives have big majorities: Broxbourne, Daventry, Harrogate, Havant, North Hertfordshire, Runnymede… These are councils where the Conservatives have 20 or 30 seats and Labour or the Lib Dems perhaps have a couple each. The councils are not at risk but these are where large numbers of seats are being defended and so, on a bad night, where losses could tot up for a national tally of doom.
The Lib Dems are a pretty negligible force in local government these days. But as I have noted earlier it so happens that two of the seven districts with all their seats up for election are Lib Dem councils – namely Eastleigh and South Lakeland. Of a further six district councils with half of the seats up for election there is another Lib Dem council – Cheltenham. Far more district councils – 55 of them – have only a third of seats up for election. This includes “Three Rivers” – what most of us would call Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, the three rivers in question are Chess, Gade and Colne.
If you believe the council by-elections are a good indicator then the Lib Dems should be on course for a modest recovery. Yet the opinion polls suggest they are bobbing along at the bottom. Indeed the most recent YouGov poll I could find has them on seven per cent. Many of the seats up for election were last contested in May 2014 – when YouGov had the Lib Dems on nine per cent.
Then we had the windfall UKIP enjoyed in 2014 when council elections were on the same day as the Euro Elections. They gained councillors in Basildon, Thurrock, Cannock Chase and Great Yarmouth. Let’s assume they get wiped out. That leaves the more difficult question of who will benefit. Some assume they took votes from the Conservatives – but often they gained seats from Labour. Where will those older patriotic working class voters go?
For the Conservatives there are several councils that would be vulnerable – even with only a third of seats being contested. Amber Valley only has a Conservative majority of one. Rugby has a minority Conservative administration. Maidstone is a Conservative / Lib Dem coalition.
On the other hand, potential prizes for the Conservatives include Colchester – which has a Labour / Lib Dem coalition, as does Pendle. Worcester has a minority Labour administration. There is also Crawley with a Labour majority of just three. Carlisle is another area where Labour’s grip on power is tenuous.
Hastings has all its seats up for election. But that is currently Labour-held by a surprisingly wide margin.
So there are some rather more closely fought battles taking place than to be seen in the big cities. Even though only a third of seats are being contested in most councils, there are plenty of places where power could easily change hands.