Party managers fear Labour will be defeated in Hull, Southampton, Croydon and several London boroughs. Norwich, a Labour-controlled city for almost 50 years, may fall to the Liberal Democrats.
Labour is also set to lose the mayoral contest in Middlesbrough at the hands of former detective supt Ray Mallon, who is standing as a hardline anti-crime independent.
Labour Party private polling suggests that the local elections will deliver the worst result since Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 general election. Research suggests that Labour supporters have decided not to vote through protest rather than apathy. The party is bracing itself to lose more than 300 seats and overall control of several key councils.
The far-right British National Party predicts that Jean-Marie Le Pen's resurgence in France will fuel its support in England on Thursday. The BNP is fielding 68 candidates - including 13 in Burnley and five in Oldham, both scenes of race riots last summer.
A total of 5,889 seats in 174 councils will be contested. There are no local elections in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
The Observer (p11) predicts Labour losses of more than 500 seats, with councils such as Norwich, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Hastings falling to the opposition. It says the Tories hope to take Croydon and Harrow, while the Liberal Democrats are chasing Labour-held Milton Keynes and Southwark.