Three big issues will overshadow next week's local elections. Internationally, coalition forces may have prevailed in Iraq, but internal dissent in the Labour Party over the justness of the war has meant many activists have been reluctant to put in their usual canvassing stint. On the home front, the implementation of the National Insurance increases which chancellor Gordon Brown announced in last year's Budget, are bound to make voters assess whether improvements in services have matched the extra tax being extracted. As if that was not enough, the double digit rises in council tax across much of the country will focus attention on whether local or central government is to blame.
Against this background, Labour will be braced for the traditional mid-term reaction against the governing party. They are defending a relative high point from 1999 when they secured 36% of the national equivalent vote - a figure they have come nowhere near matching since the 2001 general election. Although the polls continue to put them comfortably ahead of the Conservatives, seasoned local election watchers know this will have little bearing on the outcome. It is votes in the ballot box that count. If Labour's vote sinks to around 30% - and the evidence of recent by-elections suggests it might - then the party may lose up to 500 seats and suffer the indignity of surrendering to the Conservatives the title of 'largest party in English local government'.
It is the Liberal Democrats who have benefited above all from voters saying a 'plague on both your houses' to Labour and the Conservatives. For a decade now they have consistently polled at least a quarter of the national equivalent vote at each May's local elections, and this year they could get close to the 30% mark. Their average poll rating is some five percentage points better than at the same time in 2002, and they have gained five seats in by-elections this year. If their performance on 1 May is as good, they will emerge some 300 seats better off.
Any such advance may worry the Conservativesmore than Labour. The modest Conservative gains we are expecting are likely to be the product of victories over Labour being counterbalanced by losses to the Liberal Democrats. They cannot afford to go on letting the Liberal Democrats make further advances in places that have previously always been considered natural Tory territory.
Within the overall picture there are, as always, some individual council contests that demand attention. Although the extensive boundary changes this year - affecting 144 of the 339 authorities with elections in England and Scotland - often make it impossible to put a figure on the swing a particular party needs to win or lose control, plenty of councils look set to change hands. The real danger for Labour in the metropolitan boroughs will come in 2004 when all seats will be up for election, but a poor performance next week could see their majority disappear in Bolton, Dudley and Rochdale MBCs, and Birmingham City Council. The results in all the major Scottish cities except Glasgow are likely to be tight, and Labour wi ll need to fight hard in urban England to hold on in places like Bristol City and Derby City Councils, and Blackpool BC.
It is in the suburban and semi-rural areas that the Conservatives' best chances of gaining control of additional councils lie. Basildon DC, for so long the talisman of Thatcherite Essex man and woman, could fall to them once again, as could Congleton and Woking BCs, and Worcester City Council.
In many cases too there is scope for results against the general trend as voters make a judgment about what councils have done for them. Look out for the Conservatives falling back in Plymouth City Council - rated 'weak' in the CPA - and Torbay Council - rated 'poor' - and for any reaction in Kingston upon Hull City Council to the Liberal Democrat advance last year and the council's 'poor' CPA rating. Last year there was a clear, if still modest correlation between the extent to which electors were satisfied with their council and the swing to or from the incumbent party.
This year more councils than ever have been given permission to pilot new electoral arrangements. Some 60 councils in England, one in five of those with elections, will be conducting their elections using methods varying from all-postal voting to multi-channel remote electronic voting to experimenting with watermarked rather than perforated ballot papers. In the past only all-postal voting has unambiguously increased turnout, rather than simply offering electors a wider choice of more convenient ways of casting their vote. Once again the Electoral Commission will be formally evaluating the pilots, but it is perhaps time to give some attention to an issue which the commission may understandably feel reluctant to tackle.
The original all-postal voting pilots in 2000 took place only in wards that were safe for one party or the other. The 2002 pilots extended their reach to the whole of just nine principal councils. Nextweek no fewer than 35 councils will have all postal ballots and the possibility must exist that they co uld impact on the result. So far none of the parties has cried foul, but there is a need for reassurance not simply that compulsory postal voting is free from fraud and corruption but also that it does not systematically benefit one party over the others.
Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher
Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth
The 25 Election Hotspots
1. Birmingham City Council
Labour in overall control, but vulnerable to a 5% swing to Conservatives. Tories and Liberal Democrats need to repeat their 2000 performance to depose Labour.
2. Dudley MBC
Conservatives polled more votes than Labour in 2002, and would deprive Labour of control by winning just one of two seats vulnerable to a 1% swing.
3. Sheffield City Council
The Lib Dems loss of control was the shock of the 2002 elections. Labour can take over by gaining a single extra seat. The Lib Dems majority in Darnall is just 3.7%.
4. Trafford MBC
The Conservatives often poll more votes than Labour, but do less well in terms of seats. Labour has a one seat overall majority and is vulnerable to the Tories in Broadheath (1999 majority 5.1%) and Urmston (1999 majority 8.6%).
5. Aberdeen City Council
Labour has lost its overall majority since 1999. The large number of marginal seats make this a key battleground for all the Scottish parties.
6. Dundee City Council
Could go to the wire. Labour needs two gains for outright control; the SNP four. Labour is within 1% of SNP in five seats; SNP within 2% of Labour in five others.
7. Edinburgh City Council
Labour's majority is on a knife edge. Can afford to lose a single seat, but two look highly vulnerable - Stockbridge (1.2% majority over the Conservatives) and Southside (7.8 majority over Lib Dems).
8. Stirling Council
Council dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. Labour gain control by taking Logie (SNP majority 0.9%); Tories becomes largest party by stealing Strathendrick (majority 0.6%) from Labour.
< p/="">9. Blackpool BC
Extensive boundary changes this year. Conservatives won most votes, but took fewer seats in the last elections in 2000. New boundaries may aid the Tory cause this time.
10. Bristol City Council
A single loss will cost Labour its overall majority. Both Ashley and Lawrence Hill would fall to Lib Dems on 4% swing from Labour since 1999.
11. Kingston upon Hull City Council
A Lib Dem surprise last year when they almost gained overall control on a 10% swing from Labour compared with 2000. Few marginal seats, but always the potential for big shifts in votes. Council rated 'poor' in recent comprehensive performance assessment.
12. Medway Council
Extensive boundary changes and a dramatic drop in seats from 80 to 55 make predictions hazardous. The Conservatives probably not far short of a majority, but they need to improve on a strong performance in 2000.
13. Plymouth City Council
Extensive boundary changes thisyear. A surprise Conservative gain in 2000, but council rated 'weak' in recent CPA. Could see swing back to Labour whatever happens nationally.
14. York City Council
Extensive boundary changes this year. The expansion of York's city boundaries in the mid-1990s have made this tougher for Labour. The Lib Dems will hope for a better return than in 1999 when they topped the poll but won fewer seats.
15. Basildon DC
The Conservatives were one short of an overall majority after last year's elections. They need to gain a seat in Pitsea South East, which elected both Tory and Labour members in 2002.
16. Congleton BC
The Conservatives are three gains short of control. On paper they need an 8% swing from the Lib Dems since 1999, but they won all the necessary seats (including three in Sandbach alone) in the 2002 contests.
17. Erewash BC
Extensive boundary changes this year. Could well be a genuine marginal this time. The Conservatives need a 4% swing since 1999 to overtake Labour - in votes at least. A recent Audit Commission report found 'serious failings' at the council.
18. Hyndburn BC
A tight Conservative/Labour battle. The key seat is Barnfield where both parties returned a councillor last year. Labour must safely defend it to stop the Tories taking over the council.
19. Kings Lynn & West Norfolk BC
Extensive boundary changes this year. Labour and the Conservatives go into the election neck-and-neck. The Tories gained Norfolk North West at the 2001 general election, and will hope to add the council too.
20. Lewes DC
Extensive boundary changes this year. The Lib Dems have come to dominate both the council and the parliamentary constituency. Loss of control would be embarrassing, but council tax is due to rise by over 19% this year.
21. Northampton BC
Labour is likely to remain the largest party, but its majority is vulnerable to a 4% swing to the Conservatives in Billing, Old Duston and Parklands wards.
22. St Edmundsbury BC
Extensive boundary changes this year. The Conservatives won a narrow majority in 1999, but have since surrendered it at by-elections. Most wards were a straight Tory/Labour battle then, so the Tories will expect to do better this time.
23. Stratford-on-Avon DC
The Conservatives' overall majority was lost at a by-election in November 2002, but they can make four gains and take back control on a swing of 3% from the Lib Dems since last May.
24. Taunton Deane BC
The Lib Dems are just ahead of the Conservatives as the largest party, but they also defend the more vulnerable marginals. The Tories need a 4% swing from the Lib Dems since 1999 to take overall control.
25. Watford BC
A Lib Dem mayor was elected in 2002, and the Lib Dems will become the largest party if they take Central (1999 Labour majority of 3.2%) and Tudor (1999 Labour majority of 8.2%) wards.