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Smaller parties set for power grab

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Although the local elections on 7 May will be drowned out by the sound and fury of the general election campaign, they too will play a role in demonstrating how far party politics has changed in recent years.

In by far the biggest round in the electoral cycle, more than 9,000 seats in 279 local authorities will be contested, with 80% of the English electorate having the opportunity to cast both local and national ballots. Mayoral contests will also be held in six areas.  

The Conservatives are defending more than 5,000 seats (twice as many as Labour) from four years ago and majority control of almost half the councils. At the other end of the scale, the Liberal Democrats lost more than 800 seats in 2011 in their first post-coalition electoral test and now try to hold on to just short of 1,100 seats and a mere eight councils. Ukip fielded candidates in fewer than a fifth of the wards then –and won just eight seats. How times change.

Indeed, with hindsight, the 2011 local elections look like the last hurrah of the old three-party dominated electoral system. With the minds of many voters concentrated by the coincident alternative vote referendum, the Conservatives surprisingly gained seats and councils as they and Labour together attracted the support of more than three-quarters of those who cast a ballot. The Liberal Democrats scored a national equivalent of 16% of the vote – their lowest for over 30 years, but nonetheless a level that they have failed to match since. 

Our monitoring of recent local government by-elections suggests that this year both Conservatives and Labour are likely to see their vote share fall compared with 2011 and that both could be net losers of seats – the Conservatives by some 400-500 seats with Labour dropping by about 100. The Liberal Democrats may not fare too badly compared with their already poor showing four years ago, especially if they can still persuade people to support them locally at the same time as casting a different general election vote.



Most change is likely to reflect not so much movement between the main parties as a general drift away from them. This will lead to a considerable uplift in votes and seats for Ukip and the Greens compared with 2011, with locally focused Independent groups also doing well. 

The fate of the smaller parties may, to a degree, hang on how many candidates they are able to field. Finding more than 9,000 potential councillors is a big task. Council candidates play a key role in contacting voters on the doorstep and in reinforcing the message about local achievements, but some parties may content themselves with having one representative in multi-member seats in non-target areas. Ukip adopted that tactic quite widely in London last year, and although it limits possible gains, it does encourage voters to ‘lend’ a single expressive vote of support.

Indeed the likelihood of voters choosing different parties at the local and general elections will be one of the known unknowns on 7 May. Previous experience of such contests suggests up to one in five people may do this. In 1979 and 1997 the Liberal (Democrats) performed much better at the local than national level; this time such ‘ticket-splitting’ could be the difference between winning and losing in tight and unpredictable constituency or ward battles.

For many, however, the coming local elections are certain to usher in change of a different sort. Some 65 councils have been re-warded following Local Government Boundary Commission reviews, with several experiencing a (usually downward) revision of their councillor numbers.

Indeed the whole issue of electoral cycles has been reignited by Sir Bob Kerslake’s review in Birmingham recommending a move to smaller, single member wards and all-out elections as part of enhancing the ‘council’s ability to take strategic decisions’.

Already the boundary commission has recommended a radical change to electoral arrangements in Doncaster MBC which will see that council become the first metropolitan borough to move away from three-member wards with elections by thirds. Doncaster will have now 55 councillors (down from 63) divided between 8 two-member and 13 three-member wards – and they will all be elected once every four years starting this May.

A small step in South Yorkshire could soon become a giant leap for metropolitan government more widely. 

percentage of national vote


Labour already controls 30 of the 36 metropolitan boroughs and is the largest party in three more. Only Conservative Solihull and Trafford MBCs, and Stockport MBC where the Lib Dems still have their noses in front buck the trend. The Conservatives could now lose their overall majority in Trafford (the Broadheath and Flixton wards are pivotal), and Calderdale MBC could fall outright to Labour for the first time since 1998.

A repeat of Ukip’s 2014 poll-topping performance in Rotherham would be embarrassing for the local Labour party after a year of upheaval following the child sex abuse scandal, but would not threaten council control this year. 

Among the unitary authorities, dramatic changes in control are likely to be relatively rare. Labour could lose its majority on Plymouth City Council if Ukip gains further ground, and the Conservative hold on Swindon BC is by no means guaranteed.

Most unitaries with all-out elections look safe for one or other of the parties which will provide the next prime minister. For example, Labour currently has 52 of 54 seats on Leicester City Council; the Conservatives 46 of 54 on Bournemouth BC.

Brighton and Hove, with three closely fought parliamentary marginals, will be a test of how far voters do stick to the same party at both local and general contests; a Ukip local surge in Medway, where Mark Reckless is attempting to retain his 2014 Westminster by-election gain, may help to unseat the Conservatives on the council; on North Lincolnshire Council, it will take little more than a 1% swing since 2011 to lead to a straight Conservative to Labour exchange of control.   

In the districts, Labour will hope to win control of both council and constituency in Erewash and Worcester, for example, but again it is Ukip whose performance will be most closely followed as they seek their first ever outright majority in a local authority. 

That target could be reached if they repeat their 2014 showing in either Basildon or Great Yarmouth BCs where they won a clear majority of wards up for election. The county contests in 2013 further suggest that Boston BC and Thanet DC could be added to the list. 

The mayoral contests also have scope to spring surprises. Labour will expect to benefit from the higher turnout on general election day to ensure that its candidates succeed long-term Independent incumbents Tony Egginton in Mansfield DC and Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough Council who are standing down. In each case though it cannot be certain the independent tradition will be overturned.

Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby looks safe in Leicester, but Liberal Democrat Dave Hodgson in Bedford BC will do well to withstand the strong headwinds his party is facing. He might be comforted by the success of Dorothy Thornhill in nearby Watford BC who topped the poll last year at the same time as her party was trailing in fourth in the European Parliament contests.

In Torbay Council, sitting mayor Gordon Oliver suffered a vote of ‘no confidence’ from his Conservative council colleagues in November 2014, but will represent the party again against five declared opponents.

Copeland will elect a Mayor for the first time on 7 May. The borough forms the greater part of the Copeland parliamentary constituency with Labour likely to top the poll in both elections barring some determined split-ticket voting by local electors.

Councils to watch

Calderdale (NOC)

One of just six metropolitan boroughs not under Labour majority control.  That could change for the first time since 1998 with three Conservative seats vulnerable to a 2% swing.  However they managed to hang on to all 3 in 2014.

Rotherham (Lab)

Labour ever since 1973, but last year UKIP topped the poll and won 10 seats to Labour’s 11.  A repeated strong polling this time could have parliamentary as well as local consequences.

Plymouth (Lab)

UKIP made three gains from Labour in 2014 and came second in a dozen other wards.  With few obvious Labour gains in prospect, Farage’s party could yet hold the balance of power come May.

Brighton and Hove (NOC)

The Conservatives defend two marginal constituencies in the City, but the local elections largely pit Labour against the Greens.  The minority Green administration has been unpopular over issues such as recycling and refuse collection and could be deposed. 

Swindon (Con)

A traditional two-party battle at both local and national level. The Conservatives lose two seats and control on a 4% swing to Labour since boundary changes in 2012. Last year the parties took one of them each. 

Thanet (NOC)

In 2011 UKIP contested just six out of 23 wards, bringing up the rear in every case; in 2013 the party won all five county divisions in the district.  Riding Nigel Farage’s coat-tails they could well win control or at worst become the largest party.

Three Rivers (LD)

One of just ten remaining Lib Dem majority controlled councils.  The party retained it handily enough on new boundaries in 2014, but the concurrent general election will test its continuing ability to encourage voters to split their ballot in its favour locally.    

Erewash (Con)

A straight swap of control between parties is likely to be quite rare even among ‘all out’ councils.  A clean sweep for Labour in wards divided between them and the Conservatives last time would do the trick here.

Newcastle-under-Lyme (Lab)

UKIP took five seats from Labour here in 2014.  A repeat performance in wards like Holditch and Labour’s majority withers away.

South Ribble (Con)

By winning seats in wards shared by the parties in 2011, Labour can become the largest party for the first time in a decade. Readers of a certain age will regret the demise of the Idle Toad party here.  

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • I would be interested to see Bob Kerslake's evidence to support his proposal that "smaller, single member wards and all-out elections as part of enhancing the ‘council’s ability to take strategic decisions’."

    In nearly 40 years work in different capacities in some 200 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, I never found any correlation between 'all-out elections' and 'strategic decision-making'...... and I looked very hard!

    There were, however, 2 clear correlations:
    1) in areas with annual elections, there was significantly more engagement between councillors and all voters - not just the locally active citizens. Whether that was recognised or productive might be a different question, but it is quantitatively different.
    2) in areas with all-out elections, you could almost guarantee - irrespective of political control - higher-than-average rates/ council tax increases in Years 1 & 2, and lower-than-average increases in Years 3 & 4.

    As it happens, I'm generally in favour of smaller, single-member wards, although there is no over-riding reason why they should all be elected at the same time.

    Further, single-member wards in metropolitan areas particularly will amplify the differences in community expectations and demands on councillors between the leafy suburban ward (where councillors are rarely troubled by anything other than the occasional planning, highway or school admission difficulty) and the tough inner-city ward where both community and individual demands are both time-consuming and challenging. Should this be recognised in the brief given to Independent Panels determining councillors' allowances?

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