The English county elections on 5 May will mark the end of the current round of electoral reviews conducted by the Boundary Committee. Some 27 of the 34 counties will be contested on new boundaries; in the remaining seven, changes were implemented in 2001.
The total number of electoral divisions has been reduced from 2,215 to 2,117, but that figure hides the most
two-member divisions, so the number of seats has in fact risen to 2,269. Three of the new divisions have three members.
In Oxfordshire, 16 of the 57 divisions will elect more than one member; in Buckinghamshire, Nottinghamshire and Suffolk one in five divisions are multi-member. Such multi-member divisions were quite common until the previous round of reviews in the 1980s, but in the period since then all county divisions have elected a single member.
This innovation has not been without controversy. Counties as diverse as Cambridgeshire, Cornwall and Kent have all expressed their disquiet. It has been argued that multi-member divisions would obscure the lines of accountability and transparency between members and electors. It is also said such electoral divisions would be large and unwieldy, and often combine rural and urban areas with very different community interests. Others argue the Boundary Committee sacrificed the ability to be flexible in its recommendations by paying excessive heed to achieving coterminosity between district wards and county divisions.
Whether or not the county elections would be overshadowed by a coincident general election, these boundary changes make the task of identifying swing seats and councils very difficult. As a rule of thumb, however, each party's fortunes can be gauged by how far their performance varies from the current situation. The Conservatives will 'defend' about 1,020 seats, Labour 700, and the Liberal Democrats 420.
In counties where direct comparison with 2001 can be made, there seems limited scope for changes in control. The Tories should hang on in Cheshire and Hertfordshire, and only a meltdown will threaten Labour in Northumberland. Cumbria is likely to remain under no overall control and the Tories have a healthy enough cushion in Lincolnshire unless there is virulent public reaction to the Jim Speechley affair.
In Northamptonshire, however, an exchange of four county divisions between Labour and the Tories on a swing of 1% would tip the balance of power. Several of these also happen to be in key Tory parliamentary targets like Kettering (Labour majority 665 votes), Northampton South (885 votes) and Wellingborough (2,355 votes). In Somerset, the Lib Dems need a single seat for overall control. Ironically, though, having a general election on the same day would be likely to make their task more, rather than less, difficult. There are now many voters who habitually vote Lib Dem at local elections, while retaining another party loyalty for national contests.
Among those counties with new boundaries, the Tories currently control 14, Labour five, and eight are 'hung'. It is unlikely the Conservatives' local support will be any worse than in 2001, but a good performance could add Worcestershire and maybe even Gloucestershire to their tally. Labour overall control is potentially vulnerable in both Lancashire and Staffordshire.
Elections are also being held in three unitary authorities. All seats are at stake in the Isle of Wight - which follows the county election cycle - and in Stockton-on-Tees - where the boundary changes were approved too late for the 2003 contests - and a third are being contested in Bristol. The Isle of Wight and Bristol are likely to remain under no overall control, whereas Labour could struggle to retain its single seat majority in Stockton. Electors in Stockton will be voting at polling stations rather than by post for the first time since 2001.
One interesting contest last month, which may prove to have wider significance, came in a rerun election at Kingston upon Hull City Council following a High Court ruling that last June's result was void. The UK Independence Party candidate, John Cornforth, who narrowly won the original election at a time when his party seemed to be carrying all before it, finished in fourth place with more than 600 fewer votes. The electoral truism that divided parties don't win elections clearly applies to minor parties as much as to mainstream ones.
Another result which may also presage events at a general election was at Richmond-upon-Thames LBC. At the May 2002 London borough elections, the Tories topped the poll in six of the seven wards within the Lib Dem-held Richmond Park constituency. A parliamentary gain looked to be within reach.
Last week, however, the Tories lost a seat in the North Richmond ward, suffering a near 10% swing to the Lib Dems since 2002. Has their Westminster dream gone as well?
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher
Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth
By-election results - January 2005
Council Ward Result Majority Turnout
13 January 2005
Erewash BC Sawley Con gain from LD 6.8 over Lab 21.7
Kingston upon Hull City Council Derringham LD gain from UKIP 10.4 over Ind 27.0
20 January 2005
Cotswold DC Northleach Con held 61.1 over LD 44.0
Hackney LBC QueensbridgeCon gain from Lab 6.4 over Lab 28.2
Sedgemoor DC Berrow Con held 14.5 over LD 32.1
Tendring DC Thorrington, Frating, Elmstead, Con held 22.2 over LD 28.5
& Great Bromley
Vale Royal DC Winsford Swanlow LD held 21.5 over Con 19.5
Vale Royal DC Winsford Verdin LD gain from Lab 24.8 over Lab 12.0
Wear Valley DC Wheatbottom & Helmington Row Lab held 26.9 over LD 21.8
27 January 2005
East Devon DC Sidmouth Town Con held 22.4 over LD 44.5
North Lincolnshire Council Crosby & Park Lab held 33.1 over LD 22.6
Richmond upon Thames LBCNorth RichmondLD gain from Con 12.8 over Con 39.6
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Gains Held Lost Net
Conservative 2 4 1 +1
Labour 0 2 2 -2
Liberal Democrat 3 1 1 +2
Other 0 0 1 -1