These are uncertain times. The elections previewed in this series are still nearly two months away. We still have the Labour leadership contest to be concluded. But Labour is doing so badly at present that it would be a great surprise if they make overall gains when the votes are counted on the night of May 7th and over the following day. It is a more a question of whether they do badly or very badly. Sometimes a game of expectation management is involved when political parties give the media gloomy prognostications. But I think the leaked assessment from Labour is sincere.
At the General Election, the main source of bad news for the Conservatives came from Scotland, courtesy of the Scottish Nationalists. But we have no Scottish elections this year.
So does that mean all will be fine? Not necessarily. In last year’s local elections, Labour did badly. But that did not mean the Conservatives did well. On the contrary. We lost 1,330 seats. Labour made modest net losses. The gains were made by the Lib Dems – ahead by 706 overalls on their previous tally. The Green Party were up 194. Another huge factor, which got less attention in the national media, was that independents – from an array of different residents associations – made sweeping gains, even in supposedly “safe” Conservative areas. There ended up being 604 more independent councillors overall.
Dismay with Theresa May and the paralysis over Brexit were huge factors that meant – quite unfairly – many Conservative councillors were defeated. There was a lot of reference to them being “hard-working”. Many were. Many others were bone idle. Either way, the message from the doorstep was that many of their residents were fed up with voting Conservative, purely due to events taking place nationally. At that time, the Lib Dems secured a “projected national vote share” of 19 per cent. Recent opinion polling has the Lib Dems on about half that. By contrast, keen followers of the weekly Council by-election that I list on this site will have noticed the Lib Dems generally doing well.
However, there is often a local element – resentment at development schemes. Some of us feel it is not inevitable for new housing to be unpopular. If it is well located, backed up with good infrastructure, and, most important of all, attractive, then it could win widespread approval. Others suggest that so much development has been awful that there is bound to be automatic suspicion. This largely remains theoretical. The routine is still that most development proposals that meet with approval from planning officers are hideous – regardless of which party happens to control the Council. Given that has not changed, the impulse of angry residents to make some sort of protest seems likely to be repeated where relevant. In fairness, changing planning policy is a cumbersome business – and planning officers will be obstructive towards any “interference” by councillors seeking a shift away from modernism and towards beauty. One’s instinct is that the Lib Dems are adept at exploiting such grievances – though rather less so at satisfactorily resolving them in the event that they win power.
Among the district councils, Gloucester and Stroud have all their seats up for election.
The following have half their seats up for election this year:
- Nuneaton and Bedworth
These district councils have a third of their seats up for election:
- Amber Valley
- Basingstoke and Deane
- Cannock Chase
- Castle Point
- Daventry (postponed in 2019 pending reorganisation in Northamptonshire)
- Epping Forest
- Mole Valley
- North Hertfordshire
- Reigate and Banstead
- South Lakeland
- St Albans
- Three Rivers
- Tunbridge Wells
- Welwyn Hatfield
- West Lancashire
- West Oxfordshire
Of course, it is not entirely a Conservative / Lib Dem battleground. Last year Labour gained Amber Valley. Could the Conservatives take back control? Labour lost control in Burnley but it was the independents who picked up seats. Can the Conservatives do so this time? Cannock Chase was lost by Labour last time but not won by the Conservatives – could they now seal the deal? Carlisle is another hung council that will be a key test. So is Pendle. Labour held onto Harlow last time. But will they win again this year?
Cambridge is among the areas where it is a predominantly Labour/Lib Dem contest. There are some places where Labour is in such a strong position – Exeter, Norwich, and Stevenage are examples – that it would be mathematically impossible for them to lose with only a third of the seats being up for election.
There are a few places where the Lib Dems might be vulnerable. What about Cheltenham? They run the Council with a big majority. Half the seats are up for election. At the General Election they lost that constituency result. Or “Three Rivers” (Rickmansworth to you and me)? There are lots of wards with Lib Dem councillors but Conservative MPs.
Most of these seats were last contested in 2016. At that stage, the Lib Dems vote share was 15 per cent. The Conservatives were hit by a strong showing by UKIP. Against that context, perhaps the Yellow Peril can be contained – there could even be a Lib Dem retreat. A wide fluctuation in fortunes is likely and would indicate local democracy is in robust health. Certainly, if there are particular local authorities where the Conservatives do badly it will harder to shrug that off as something to blame on national factors, if the results are good overall.
It would be surprising if we see the sort of Lib Dem rejoicing witnessed last year. It is just that they offer a greater threat to Conservatives success than Labour are likely to in these elections. I feel confident in predicting a drubbing for Labour – more nervous about making any prediction at all, when it comes to those cunning Lib Dems.