Labour’s lead in the polls looks certain to be matched by gains of both seats and councils in May’s local elections. But with most contests taking place far from the party’s heartlands in its weakest tier of local government, the battle between the coalition parties is the one most electors will experience.
When the counties were last contested in 2009, the Conservatives won almost seven in 10 divisions (with the Liberal Democrats in second place in three-quarters of them) and overall control of every county except Cumbria. For their part, the Liberal Democrats took twice as many seats as Labour, with the Conservatives finishing as runners-up in the vast majority.
Among the unitary authorities, Durham alone (which last had elections in 2008) is in Labour’s hands, with former counties such as Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and Wiltshire continuing to be deserts of support. Even on the day of Tony Blair’s landslide general election victory in 1997, Labour won fewer county council seats than the Conservatives and control of just eight authorities.
Labour’s attack this time will be concentrated in those counties in the Midlands and the north that they lost in 2009 and where the traditional Conservative/Labour contest remains sharpest.
That election was a historic low point for the party, eclipsing even its disastrous performances in 1967 and 1968. In the coincident European Parliament elections they finished in third place behind UKIP, polling just 16% of the vote across the country.
Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire should both be comfortable gains. Lancashire and Staffordshire (where just three Labour councillors were elected last time) are also realistic targets if Labour is to register the 300-plus seat gains its recent performance in local by-elections would suggest is possible. It should also emerge as the largest party in Cumbria and might do the same in Warwickshire.
Further south, Labour’s priority will be to bounce back in the more urban areas of counties where it was virtually wiped out in 2009 but which encompass key parliamentary marginals. Only a disaster would upset the Conservatives in Essex, Kent, Suffolk or West Sussex, but Labour will look to win the most divisions in places such as Harlow, Dover, Ipswich and Crawley.
To move beyond about 350 gains, Labour would need consistently to win from third place. How far that happens depends in large part on the fate of the coalition partners.
In 2011 the Conservatives confounded many commentators by emerging from the local elections with their number of both councils and councillors intact. Their overall vote share held up (thanks in part to the simultaneous alternative vote referendum), and they compensated for losses to Labour in the north and the Midlands with sweeping gains from the Liberal Democrats in the suburban and rural south of England.
The same territory is up for grabs this year, but the omens are not so good for David Cameron’s party.
On the one hand, a direct swing to Labour looks unavoidable. That alone would equate to the loss of at least 200 seats and overall control in up to 10 counties. In addition to those councils gained by Labour, the Conservative majority could be on a knife-edge in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
On the other hand, there seems less likelihood now of voters changing their allegiance from the junior to the senior coalition partner. A swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour could give the Conservatives an opening in some currently Liberal Democrat seats, but that assumes their own support remains steady. In Dorset, for example, half of all Liberal Democrat seats on the council are vulnerable to a 3% swing to the Conservatives, with Labour far behind.
However, there and in other places where Labour scarcely registers at the count, a raft of independent, small party and - especially - UKIP candidates lie in wait to attract disaffected voters. They may not win large numbers of seats themselves, but any increase in their share of the vote could threaten the Conservative incumbents who dominate these elections in almost every council.
In Cornwall, for example, where the Conservatives overtook the Liberal Democrats as the largest party last time, the fallout from the rather fractious Conservative/independent administration is more likely to benefit non-party challengers.
In 2009 the Liberal Democrats saw their vote share dip and they lost control of the only two counties they controlled - Devon and Somerset. Currently they continue to struggle to break into double figures in the opinion polls but nestle in the mid-teens according to the results of real elections. Indeed, in the past six months they have made a dozen byelection gains from the Conservatives and suffered no losses to them.
That success has largely come through carefully targeted campaigns, and a similar approach is likely in May. The party is helped this year too by avoiding head-to-head clashes with Labour in the metropolitan boroughs which saw it lose hundreds of councillors in 2011 and 2012. Even so, it seems probable that losses in both Bristol and Northumberland will propel Labour back into first place there.
Against the Conservatives there may be many instances where the Eastleigh parliamentary byelection result is replicated. In other words, both parties fall back but the one that is defending the seat manages to keep its nose in front.
Key battlegrounds on this front include Cheltenham, Eastbourne and the Chippenham wards in Wiltshire.
Overall losses for the Liberal Democrats do look inevitable, and winning control of any council is unlikely, but they may be capped at around a quarter of the nearly 500 seats being defended compared with an attrition rate of almost one loss for every two councillors suffered by the party in the past two years.
The ‘known unknown’ in this year’s elections is the performance of UKIP. Nigel Farage’s party has recently made gains in local byelections; its share in those seats it has contested is up by about 10 percentage points, and since the beginning of 2013 it has regularly outscored the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls.
It only contested a quarter of all divisions in 2009 but averaged 16% of the vote in those where it had a presence, boosted no doubt by its European Parliament election profile.
As a party without a clear geographical or social base, the first-past-the-post system works against UKIP and any gains are likely to be numbered in the tens. It does though have pockets of support in counties such as Buckinghamshire, Surrey and West Sussex where it could prove an irritant to the Conservatives. Perhaps more surprisingly it has also polled well at local elections in parts of Lancashire and Staffordshire where it might ease Labour’s task.
Labour can also expect a boost from the two mayoral contests.
In Doncaster, the English Democrats’ Peter Davies (father of Shipley Conservative MP Philip) has resigned from the party and surely left the door open for Labour, which easily topped the poll in last year’s council contests.
The mayoralty in North Tyneside tends to flow with the national political tide. Labour defeated the Conservative incumbent Linda Arkley on general election day 2005; Ms Arkley grabbed it back in 2009. Labour has built a big majority on the council since then and should be in the driving seat this time.
Elections for Isle of Anglesey CC in Wales are being held out of sequence following their postponement 12 months ago.
Radical boundary changes have turned 40 single-member wards into 11 multi-member ones, but independents are still likely to predominate.
Professor Colin Rallings and Professor Michael Thrasher, elections centre, University of Plymouth
Six councils to watch
Buckinghamshire (Con). Boundary changes. The only county council to have been continuously Conservative since reorganisation in 1973. Neither boundary changes nor government unpopularity will interrupt that pattern this year. However, keep an eye on UKIP, which performed well here in the 2009 county and 2011 district elections.
Cumbria (NOC). Boundary changes. The only county not under Conservative control after 2009, and run by an unusual Labour/Conservative administration. Labour needs 19 gains for overall control, with the Conservatives looking vulnerable in several unchanged divisions such as Wigton (Allerdale) and Yewdale (Carlisle). The Lib Dems defend 11 mainly very safe seats in their South Lakeland heartland. Labour likely to be largest party.
Derbyshire (Con). Boundary changes. The Conservatives’ narrow majority might already have been eroded if the boundary review had taken place before 2009. An 8% swing from the Conservatives would see Labour back to its 2005 strength with an overall majority.
Gloucestershire (Con). Boundary changes. Several previously Conservative seats disappear under the new boundaries, but the party still has a cushion from 2009. Labour will look to the Forest of Dean, Gloucester, and Stroud to register a comeback from that year’s disastrous performance which saw its county-wide vote share more than halved. It will be a bad night for the Conservatives if they lose control here.
Nottinghamshire (Con). The Conservatives deposed Labour in 2009 and defend a narrow majority. They would lose it on a less than 1% swing to Labour, which needs more than 20 gains to take over - something that would require a double-figure swing from both the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Somerset (Con). Boundary changes. The Conservatives took over from the Lib Dems in 2009 and it is hard to imagine the position being reversed in the current climate. However, the Lib Dems (who control four of the county’s five parliamentary seats) could benefit from any anti-incumbent sentiment locally. Success for independents or minor parties could leave the council hung.