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The three main party leaders have some sleepless nights ahead of them as election day nears, warn Colin Rallings an...
The three main party leaders have some sleepless nights ahead of them as election day nears, warn Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

Rarely can all three major parties have approached English local elections with such trepidation. All have more to lose than to gain, and each party's leader could be seriously damaged by poor results.

Once again this year there appears to be a disjunction between the parties' performance in opinion polls and their record in local elections. Most recent polls have Labour edging ahead of the Conservatives with little sign of David Cameron providing a sea change in the underlying level of Tory support. In local elections, by contrast, the Conservatives are ahead - as they have been ever since 2000, but appear to be doing no better now than under either William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are neck and neck in the race for second place.

More than a quarter of the seats falling vacant, including all those in the metropolitan boroughs, were last contested in 2004. Those elections saw Labour record its lowest share of the vote in towns and cities since local government reorganisation more than 30 years previously, but provided little comfort for the Conservatives either. Polling about 25% in terms of both votes and seats, they won control of just four of the 36 boroughs - one fewer than the number in which there are no Conservative councillors at all.

The key questions this year are whether Labour has bottomed out, and whether there is any sign of the Conservatives successfully making overtures to the inner city electorate. Although there are only a handful of boroughs like Barnsley and Bury where a small further swing away from Labour could cost the party its majority, there are plenty of cases where there is scope to improve on 2004's woeful performance. In places like Newcastle, Sunderland, Wakefield and Wigan the party's share dropped by over 10 percentage points, often to the benefit of the Lib Dems or smaller parties and local community groups.

It is the failure of the pendulum to swing in the traditional way that encapsulates the Conservatives' problems in urban England. Their vote in 2004 was also down in 30 boroughs. As at the general election last year, many of their successes came as a result of doing less badly than their opponents rather than by attracting new swathes of support themselves. They need to make more positive steps this May, but so far there is little evidence that they are on the verge of doing so. At a minimum the party must convincingly beat the Lib Dems into third place in the Mets, or risk further jibes about their irrelevance in a new Lab/Lib Dem battleground.

The contests in the majority of seats last fought in 2002 are dominated by the all-out elections in London. In the local elections before the Iraq war, the Conservatives narrowly beat Labour in the popular vote but had 200 fewer borough councillors elected.

This time the signs for Labour(and Mr Blair) are ominous. In almost all the 15 boroughs the party currently controls there are identifiable, if often different, challengers. The Conservatives will be targeting four boroughs where they gained parliamentary seats on an increased share of the vote - Bexley, Croydon, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Merton. The Liberal Democrats will look to consolidate their own general election upsets in Brent and Haringey, as well as vying to achieve the small swing required for overall control in the neighbouring south London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. In Barking & Dagenham the British National Party will be aiming to pull white, working-class voters away from Labour; in Newham and Tower Hamlets, Respect will hope to benefit from continuing hostility to the war. In both Camden and Hackney the Greens are close to taking seats from Labour in some wards.

The Conservatives are themselves at risk to an anti-incumbent swing to the Liberal Democrats in Richmond upon Thames, but they could control more London boroughs than Labour. Although their share of the vote across the capital is unlikely to be much above 35% (a long way short of the level needed for a general election victory), such a result would be of symbolic importance for the new leadership.

Non-metropolitan England presents fewer opportunities for dramatic change, and there is likely to be less evidence too of the flight from major parties. Nonetheless Labour and the Conservatives lock horns in places like Crawley and Redditch, and the Lib Dems will have their ability to compete on two fronts tested against the Conservatives in Eastbourne and Harrogate and against Labour in Bristol and Norwich.

The general election provided some signs that the Lib Dems were losing ground to the Conservatives in rural and suburban areas. Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell faces his first local election with the unenviable task of building on his predecessor's record of always polling at least a quarter of the national equivalent vote. With even the Liberal Democrats not immune from the rise of new political forces, matching that target would mark a solid start for Sir Menzies in what remains the springboard for his party's wider electoral hopes.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher,

Directors, LGC Election Centre, University of Plymouth

Markers on the night


Net gain in seats: Former supporters have been wooed back, especially from the Lib Dems and smaller parties.

Up to 150 net losses: Problems in London, butlikely to have bottomed out elsewhere.

Over 200 net losses: Further widespread fall in support. Likely to have finished third behind the Lib Dems in vote share.


Net loss of seats: Failure to defend progress made at a local level since 1999.

Up to 100 gains: Modest advance (probably in London), but no real evidence of winning over new territory.

Over 200 gains: The basis for a claim that David Cameron really has made a difference to the party's fortunes.

Liberal Democrats

Net loss of seats: National problems impact on local support. Lose ground to both Labour and the Conservatives in different parts of the country.

Up to 100 gains: Confirmation that three-party local politics is here to stay.

Over 200 gains: The anti-government pendulum continues to swing the Lib Dems' rather than the Conservatives' way.

20 councils to watch

Newcastle City Council Dramatic Lib Dem gain in 2004. Swing of 8% to Labour now required for Lib Dems to lose overall control. West Gosforth is the best chance for Conservatives to get back on the council after a 10-year absence.

Bury MBC Labour control vulnerable to a swing of under 2% to the Conservatives. Both parties won seats in the Elton and Unsworth wards in 2004 - Labour must defend this time.

Blackburn with Darwen BC Labour has a four-seat majority, though the allegiance of some originally Independent councillors has varied. Labour control now vulnerable to 1% swing (to Tories in Meadowhead; to Lib Dems in Higher Croft).

Bassetlaw DC A former Labour stronghold now on the cusp of Conservative control. A 3% swing since 2002 in East Retford North and Worksop North East would do

the trick.

Newcastle-under-Lyme BC Labour overall control vulnerable to the loss of two seats. A 2% swing to either Conservatives or Lib Dems would

be enough.

Redditch BC A good test of any Conservative revival. Labour majority vulnerable to 3% swing to Conservatives since 2004. The Abbey and Central wards could hold the key.

Bristol City Council Majority control likely to elude the Lib Dems again. Conservatives need to show signs of recovery from a poor local performance on general election day 2005. Low one-star rating in recent comprehensive performance assessment.

Solihull MBC Conservatives will look to emphasise their local dominance following the shock 2005 loss of the Solihull parliamentary seat to Lib Dems. The fightback could centre on Shirley where Lib Dems won six out of nine seats in 2004.

Newcastle City Council Dramatic Lib Dem gain in 2004. Swing of 8% to Labour now required for Lib Dems to lose overall control. West Gosforth is the best chance for Conservatives to get back on the council after a 10-year absence.

Bury MBC Labour control vulnerable to a swing of under 2% to the Conservatives. Both parties won seats in the Elton and Unsworth wards in 2004 - Labour must defend this time.

Portsmouth City Council Lib Dems need two gains for control. They will get there if they can repeat their 2004 success in Central Southsea and St Thomas.

Winchester City Council The Mark Oaten affair adds piquancy to the contest here. The Lib Dems are currently the largest party, but Conservatives could displace them with a 3% swing since 2002.

Coventry City Council Conservatives need a single gain for an overall majority. Best chances will come in the Foleshill and Westwood wards where they won seats in 2004.

Crawley BC Labour control is on a knife-edge. Labour won the third seat in Southgate ward by just three votes from Conservatives in 2004. Lose this time and the council will be hung.

Eastbourne BC Fascinating Con/Lib Dem battle. Conservatives have a one seat majority; Lib Dems need one gain to take control themselves. Old Town ward is the Lib Dems' best chance.

Richmond upon Thames LBC Lib Dems lost control to Conservatives for the first time in 20 years in 2002. With 12 wards having majorities of less than 10%, this is the Lib Dems' number one target in London.

Croydon LBC Conservatives polled many more votes than Labour in 2002 but still found themselves in a minority on the council. They need four gains for control - Norbury and Waddon wards (Labour majority less than 5%) are the key battlegrounds.

Merton LBC Key Lab/Con battle. A 5% swing would give Conservatives the Abbey and Longthornton wards - and overall control. Conservatives gained Wimbledon at the 2005 general election.

Hammersmith & Fulham LBC Conservatives will fancy their chances of taking control from Labour on a 2% swing since 2002. Fulham Broadway, Fulham Reach and Ravenscourt Park are the pivotal wards.

Camden LBC Distribution of votes was kind to Labour in 2002 - a clear majority of seats with fewer than a third of the votes. Labour should top the poll in sufficient wards to retain control, but both the Lib Dems and Greens may mount a challenge. Top four-star rating.

Lambeth LBC Labour and Lib Dems neck and neck in votes and seats in 2002. Each needs four gains for control on a 3% swing from the other.

Tower Hamlets LBC All eyes will be on Respect in the most Muslim authority in the country. Labour need to show they have fought back after the embarrassment of the Bethnal Green & Bow general election defeat.

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