Local election results used to fit into a well-established rhythm. The party in government nationally would suffer. It would be patiently explained by the pundits that this did not necessarily mean that that party would be defeated at a subsequent general election. Council elections offer a harmless opportunity for a “mid term protest vote”. Often opposition supporters are motivated to go out and vote while the Government’s erstwhile supporters stay at home.
Since 2010, the Conservatives have defied political gravity and remained the largest political party in local government. According to the Commons Library there are 9,233 Conservative councillors in Great Britain. That compares with 6,439 for Labour and 1,803 for the Lib Dems. The Conservatives control 200 councils, Labour 99 and the Lib Dems eight. Even if the Conservatives get disastrous results for those seats being contested this year CCHQ will still be able to declare: “we are still the largest party in local government.” So strong is our current position that it would be mathematically impossible for that to change on this year’s results.
The councils that are up for election on May 3rd tend to be ones where Labour are strong. We have the 32 London boroughs. Here the media attention will be on whether the Conservatives hold Westminster and Wandsworth. Given the extent of speculation that they are at risk, to retain control in these boroughs, even with fewer seats, will be portrayed as a triumph.
We have the metropolitan authorities – mostly these have a third of seats up for elections. Leeds and Birmingham have all their seats up for election and if the Conservatives retreat or advance in those cities that will be of interest. But in Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne – which also have all their seats being contested, the Conservatives have no representation. So for the Conservatives, holding on in Trafford will be the key challenge. Labour currently run Kirklees and Calderdale as minority administrations. Failure for them to gain overall majorities in these areas would make it hard for Jeremy Corbyn to claim the Party is making clear progress under his leadership.
However, there are also a third of seats being contested in 16 unitary authorities – including such key battlegrounds as Swindon, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Plymouth.
There are also contests in some district councils. 55 of them have a third of seats up for election. These include Maidstone, Three Rivers and South Cambridgeshire which are principally Conservative/Lib Dem contests. Seven districts have all their seats up for elections. These include two with big Lib Dem majorities – Eastleigh and South Lakeland. So bad results there might put some pressure on Vince Cable. Other district council contests provide a test for Labour. Those include Hastings which is a Labour council – but where the results will be of considerable interest to the Home Secretary. Then there Newcastle-under-Lyme – which is currently a minority Labour administration but this is an area where Labour has been in decline. Labour losses could take the shine off advances elsewhere.
When these seats were last contested, UKIP was a force in the land. That party was boosted as the contest, which took place in 2014, was held on the same day as the Euro Elections. UKIP won 166 councillors – although many have since defected to the Conservatives. UKIP won 18 per cent of the vote. Assuming that share collapses, it is highly likely that the Conservatives, Labour, and the Lib Dems will all be able to claim a higher share of the vote; of course their performance relative to each other is more to the point.
So we could have prizes for everyone with all three main parties saying how pleased they are. All able to reply with success stories when the TV and radio interviewers refer to failures. But I suspect that it will be Theresa May’s smile that will be the most genuine. The Lib Dems care deeply about winning in local government elections and have been on a very long losing streak. If they are just coasting along at the bottom will the knives be out for Sir Vince? Their strategy of banging on about protesting against Brexit does strike me as flawed. For Jeremy Corbyn, results that are poor, or even mixed, will mean the story has moved from the last general election and Labour’s startlingly strong showing.