On Thursday, local elections take place, amidst an exceptional level of antipathy towards the main political parties at Westminster. What makes it unprecedented is the degree of hostility to both Labour and the Conservatives.
One can only really make such comparisons for the period after the Second World War. Before that, local elections were much less party political. In London, the Conservatives used to call themselves the “Municipal Reform Party” when it came to local government. Elsewhere, it would be quite normal for no candidates to be standing under a party banner but as independents, or as “Ratepayers”.
Since 1945, it has often been the case that a Party in power nationally has been punished with a drubbing in town hall contests. The oddity we face at present is that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems have all contrived to be deeply unpopular at the same time.
No council elections are taking place in Scotland or Wales this year.
But in England 8,374 seats are up for election, and a further 460 in Northern Ireland.
There are no elections in London, Cornwall, Bristol, Wiltshire or Shropshire. But most of the rest of England has an election of some sort. 33 metropolitan boroughs, 168 districts, and 47 unitary authorities go to the polls. Some are “all out” elections; others have a third of seats being contested.
A quiet revolution is underway – with more unitary authorities rather than “two tier” arrangements. So in Dorset, there will be just two councils in future. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council will cover the east of the county; the new Dorset Council will cover the rest of the county.
Another innovation will be a new directly elected regional mayor, for the North of Tyne Authority.
Despite their difficulties, the Labour Party is expected to make significant gains from the Conservatives. This is partly because most of these seats were last contested in 2015, the same day as the Conservatives won the general election.
Therefore, the Conservatives have more territory to defend. Furthermore, we have a Conservative Government and voters tend to focus their blame on the Party in power if they are dissatisfied – whether over Brexit or other matters. As I noted last week even if the main parties were level in the opinion polls, that would imply Conservative losses of 500 seats. Most recent polls have had Labour several points ahead.
So which are the council results to look for in terms of Labour/Conservative battlegrounds?
Calderdale is one of the easiest Labour targets, even though only a third of the seats are being contested. That council already has a minority Labour administration. Victory would give Labour control of every metropolitan borough in Yorkshire.
Trafford is another council that is already Labour-run, but as a minority administration. Modest gains would give Labour full control in this authority which has long been a high profile bellwether of Party fortunes. The same applies in Dudley. Labour will be hoping to advance overall control from their current precarious status. Other councils with minority Labour administrations include Carlisle, Milton Keynes, Redcar and Cleveland, and North East Lincolnshire. All are obvious targets for them to gain overall control.
Brighton and Hove is less predictable. The whole council is up for election there. It has a minority Labour administration. But what will be the impact of Corbynista deselections? It is not a straightforward Labour/Conservative battle as there is a significant group of Green party councillors.
Labour has an overall majority of one on Cheshire West and Chester. But that is a council they gained unexpectedly last time, and so can not take it for granted.
Derby is another to look out for. It is run by a minority Conservative administration after Labour lost control last year. Will they get it back? Or make further losses? Stoke is also a bit tricky to call. All the seats are up for election. It is currently run by Conservatives and independents. Normally it would be solid Labour territory. But what will be the Brexit factor? York is run by a coalition of the Conservatives and Lib Dems. That will be another prominent Labour target.
Among the district councils, High Peak and Gravesham are both Conservative councils, with small majorities, where all the seats are being contested. Amber Valley and Basildon are also both narrowly Conservative controlled and in those only a third of the seats are being contested, making Labour’s challenge greater in mathematical terms.
Thurrock is a unitary authority with a minority Conservative administration and a third of seats being contested.
What if Labour do much better? It is possible they could be gifted some windfall gains due to Tory voters abstaining. Conservative councils where all the seats are up for election include Boston, Broxtowe, Dover, Medway and North Lincolnshire. If it is a bad night those are the sort of places that would fall.