Last year the local elections in England were not too bad for Jeremy Corbyn. Labour got a hammering in Scotland, of course, but in England they made modest net gains in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. In terms of council seats, they had a net loss of only 18. Then there was the high profile result in London, with Sadiq Khan being elected the Mayor.
This year’s elections on May 4th are still three months away – from tomorrow, as it happens. But I predict that they will offer a much more emphatic message of doom for the Labour Party. If the opinion polls are any guide, then Labour is significantly less popular now than last May.
In Wales all Council seats are up for election. The last time round, in 2012, Labour made gains. That was in the heady days of Ed Miliband when Labour were well ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. It was also before UKIP had taken off. Of the 1,254 councillors in Wales, nearly half of them, 573, are Labour with just one (in the Vale of Glamorgan) for UKIP. In 2012 the Conservatives lost control of Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan. Realistically, in Wales this year, we can expect the alternative scenarios of big Labour losses – or very big Labour losses.
The county council elections in England last took place in 2013. Again, that was a period of Labour popularity. Their results were impressive for an opposition party at that stage in Parliament – but they gained only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Lancashire which had been Conservative, ended up Labour-run propped up by the Lib Dems. That year saw UKIP becoming a significant force in local government, mostly at the expense of the Conservatives – who lost overall control in some unexpected places such as Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, and East Sussex. The logic of Brexit should mean that UKIP take fewer votes from the Conservatives but more from Labour. There has already been a trickle of UKIP councillors defecting to the Conservatives.
So we will probably make some solid gains. But there will be a lot of attention paid to Surrey where a referendum will take place on the same day for a 15 per cent Council Tax increase. The Conservatives have a big majority on the Council. But their plea for that huge Council Tax increase is likely to be emphatically rejected. It is perfectly possible that voters could also elect Conservative council candidates. Perhaps candidates will be free to state their personal opposition to the Council Tax increase. Or they might ignore the issue and write about other subjects in their leaflets. But it is a messy position to be in – and there are lots of residents associations lurking in that county. Then, of course, there are the Lib Dems.
A Labour loss is not always the same thing as a Conservative gain. I suspect Labour will take a huge beating from everyone on May 4th – Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP, Plaid… But the Lib Dems pose a threat to the Conservatives too. In Cornwall the Lib Dems are already in power, in coalition with independents. Could they sweep back in Somerset and Devon; which they held until 2009?
Then we have the Mayoral elections. Perhaps UKIP (or some independent) might snatch Doncaster from Labour. Labour gained the Mayoralty of North Tyneside from the Conservatives in 2013. So that will be another one to watch.
Then there is the biggest prize of the night – the election for the new post of directly-elected Mayor of the West Midlands. This covers Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. In normal times Labour would expect to win. But we do not live in normal times. The Conservative candidate, Andy Street, is a strong candidate and is already running a good campaign.
So touring the TV studios on Friday May 5th, I envisage an insufferably smug Tim Farron and a beleaguered Jeremy Corbyn. Conservatives will have much to celebrate. For us to be making net gains at this time would be to defy political gravity. But the Lib Dem recovery will give the broadcasters something to niggle at. “What about Somerset?” they will ask. “What about Surrey?”