Earlier this week I considered the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the district councils. As these were last contested in 2016, they offer the potential for Conservative gains. By contrast, the county councils represent a problem of success for the Conservatives. They were last fought in 2017. After Sir John Curtice did some number crunching, he declared that the results equated to a projected national vote share of 38 per cent for the Conservatives, 27 per cent for Labour, 18 per cent for the Lib Dems, and five per cent for UKIP. Current polling suggests a healthy Conservative lead over Labour but not as high as that – the latest one I saw had it at nine per cent. Perhaps that is a crude measure to rely on to forecast local elections over a month away. But it gives a broad indication that the Conservatives will be on the defensive for this electoral category.
Elections will take place in 21 counties – Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset still have county councils but they are being excluded due to proposals to switch to unitary status in those areas. Of those, 19 are Conservative controlled. Two are under No Overall Control. Those two – Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire – are Conservative-led coalitions with the backing of independents. One would normally expect the Conservatives to be easily winning in Oxfordshire. We shall see if the little local difficulties of four years ago can be overcome this time. The difficulty might be that even if some independents are seen off, the Lib Dems pose an increased risk.
So far as the more general political barometer is concerned, Nottinghamshire is of greater relevance. Along with Derbyshire and Lancashire, it is traditional Labour territory. For Labour to be doing well they ought to be winning these counties outright. It should not be enough for the Conservatives to be doing badly and some hodge-podge coalitions. Yet even for Labour to become the largest party in these counties would require a significant number of gains on four years ago. In Nottinghamshire, we have 31 Conservative councillors with Labour on 23. Derbyshire has 36 Conservatives, Labour on 25. Lancashire saw 46 Conservatives returned last time – only 30 for Labour. If Conservatives managed to win in these counties, even lose a few seats, it will be a good result. Even if they need to come up with a deal with some independents, after negotiations in smoke filled rooms (not that smoking is allowed in council offices these days), they should be relieved. In most of the other counties up for election Labour start with a tally of councillors in single figures.
What of the Lib Dems? They also start from a low base. Even in Devon they only have half a dozen seats. The Conservatives won a huge majority last time. They are denied the chance of a contest in Somerset – which is among the more promising territory for them. If they are guided by their encouraging district council election results in 2017 they will be looking for gains in Cambridgeshire (where they currently have 16 councillors) and Essex (where they are on eight.) It would be surprising if they gained any Council but they might be beneficiaries of some confusing results. If Labour narrow the gap; the Conservatives hold in some places; plus the Green Party and independents pick up some seats; then we could see more hung councils – a situation in which the Lib Dems, with the flexible political approach, would be well placed to adapt to.
But could the Green Party make the electoral challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems harder, by splitting the woke vote? Most county councils do not have a single Green Party councillor. The highest tally is in Suffolk where they have three. Yet some opinion polls have them roughly level with the Lib Dems. April 8th sees the close of nominations so if there are more Green Party candidates than last time, that will give an initial indication that they may be on the up.
Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:
“I would certainly anticipate that Labour will make gains. Derbyshire would be their top target. In the elections in 2013 they won it with a big majority. Staffordshire has moved out of their reach but they will be looking for significant progress in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. The national swing to them since 2017 may be mitigated by the popularity of Boris Johnson in the Midlands and the North but it would still be a surprise if Labour did not make significant gains. For the Lib Dems seeking a breakthrough, the coronavirus restrictions over the last year will have been a particular problem. They still have an edge on other parties when it comes to their local campaigning machine. But the lockdown has prevented them from exploiting that.”
It would be unrealistic for Conservatives not to brace themselves for some setbacks in the county council elections. But there is a good chance that a drubbing can be averted.