On May 3rd, approximately 10,500 council seats will be contested in England, and another 1,100 in Scotland. In England, 154 District Councils and 25 Unitary Authorities have all-out elections, while the 36 Metropolitan Boroughs, 20 Unitary Authorities, and 77 Districts are electing one third of their seats. The 32 Scottish Authorities have all out elections, although they will change from first past the post, to election by way of the Single Transferable Vote, in three member wards. On the same day, the Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections will also take place. Due to changes to the law regarding the verification of postal votes, many English authorities, particularly rural ones, will count their votes on the following Friday.
According to figures provided by Richard Willis, the Conservatives have fielded 9,264 council candidates in England, Labour 6,360 , the Lib Dems 6,667, the Greens 1,394, UKIP 805, and the BNP 717. In all likelihood, five or six hundred Conservative councillors have already “won” without a vote being cast, either because they have been returned unopposed, or because they do not face a full slate of opposition candidates in multi-member wards. Additionally, in a number of rural Conservative seats, the Conservatives face no opposition at all from either Labour or the Lib Dems, but rather from Independents or UKIP candidates. For this reason, the Conservatives have already “won” at least five authorities, and are within striking distance of taking several others, even before May 3rd. Labour have also “won” Easington and Bolsover for the same reason. As yet, I have no information about the number of council candidates fielded in Scotland.
The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and the majority of the seats coming up in District and Unitary Authorities were last contested in 2003. All of the seats coming up in the Metropolitan Boroughs were last fought in 2004 (except for by-elections). In 2003, the Conservatives were estimated by the BBC to have led Labour by 5% in terms of projected national vote share, and the Lib Dems by 8%. In 2004, the respective figures were 12%, and again 8%, although the Lib Dems overtook Labour. In Scotland and Wales, inevitably, the Conservatives performed much less well, winning a maximum of 17% in Scotland, and 20% in Wales, and coming third in terms of seats, in both elections. The Party almost won control of one Scottish authority, South Ayrshire, but Labour retained control by the toss of a coin (although the Conservatives subsequently took control after a by-election).
The only poll of the Welsh campaign, so far, places the Conservatives on 24%, a creditable result, which would enable them to take second place in the Assembly. The Welsh Conservatives have been quite successful in recovering from the defeat of 1997, regaining three Parliamentary seats in 2005, and coming close in another three. The Scottish situation is less encouraging. The United Kingdom Parliamentary boundary changes in Scotland, in 2005, were harmful to the Party, breaking up two of the Conservatives’ best prospects, Edinburgh Pentlands, and Ayr, with the result that the Scottish Conservatives only won one seat in 2005. However, their fundamental problem is that their support has remained stuck in the range of 14-18% ever since 1997, and that is spread far too thinly across the country to win at constituency level. Currently, opinion polls suggest the Conservatives will win a maximum of 14% in the Parliamentary election, which would cost them two or three seats, and probably push them into fourth place. It is worth noting, however, that Scottish opinion polls regularly understate Conservative support. It really would be very disappointing if the Party could not increase its support slightly on 2003, perhaps to as much as 20%, with a gain of a couple of seats. It is most unlikely that the Conservatives will retain South Ayrshire council, following the introduction of PR in local elections. Overall, their seat total will probably remain similar to its current level of 127.
In England the Conservatives can expect big gains. Last year’s local elections gave a projected lead of 13% over Labour, and 14% over the Lib Dems. Both opinion polls, and local by-election results, suggest that the lead over Labour has widened since then. A net gain of anything under 500 seats, and a dozen councils, should be regarded as a poor result for the Conservatives. In practice, I expect their net gain to be nearer 750 seats and around 18 councils.
Councils to watch out for, for Conservative gains from Labour, include Gravesham, Plymouth, and Lincoln. If the night is really bad for Labour, then authorities such as Blackpool, Darlington, and Nottingham might fall as well. The Conservatives ought to take Torbay, Bournemouth, and Uttlesford from the Liberal Democrats, as well as Shepway, which the Liberal Democrats won in 2003, before subsequently falling apart. The Conservatives may well be able to deprive the Liberal Democrats of overall control of St. Alban’s as well. Most Conservative gains are likely to come from No Overall Control. Councils to look out for include East Riding of Yorkshire, Bath and NE Somerset, Waverley, Rugby, Basingstoke, Barrow in Furness, Brighton and Hove, Braintree, Chester, Ipswich, Maidstone, and perhaps also Bury, as well as winning a majority of the seats on North Tyneside, although a Labour Mayor means that authority will remain under Labour control.
Naturally, there are bound to be losses against the trend. The Conservatives are vulnerable in Hyndburn, where Labour has done well in by-elections, Thurrock, where Labour recovered ground last year, and North Lincolnshire, where they have a majority of just one seat. The Liberal Democrats should be able to pull off a surprise win or two at the Conservatives’ expense as well.
One myth which should be nailed is that the Conservatives have “no councillors in the main Northern cities”. In fact they have over 300 councillors in Northern Metropolitan Boroughs, and will probably have more after May 3rd. It is true that the Conservatives have underperformed in Northern urban areas for some years, relative to their overall performance, but this is a very good example of lazy journalism.