Political form suggests Labour could make 200 gains but a major shift is required for it to win flagship Tory London boroughs.
Rallings and thrasher
In the four short years since the seats that fall vacant at next month’s local elections were last contested the electoral landscape in England has changed profoundly.
Then, a Conservative-led national coalition coming to the end of its term was looking nervously over its shoulder at the threat posed by an insurgent Ukip.
Now, two general elections and a referendum later, Ukip seems dead in the water and politics is dominated by the two main parties more than at any time for over a quarter of a century.
The local elections are likely to reflect this dominance with the Conservatives and Labour together defending over 80% of the more than 4,350 seats in 150 councils at stake in May. In London the entire council in 32 boroughs is being elected; in most other places a third or a half of councillors face the electorate.
Recent by-elections as well as the opinion polls show Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck in the battle for local votes. As is usual, the Liberal Democrats are performing better at council by-elections than in the polls.
If this current picture continues up to the May election itself then Labour could be on course to make about 200 gains (the majority of them in London) with the Conservatives suffering around 75 net losses and the Liberal Democrats perhaps picking up a couple of dozen or so extra seats. We expect the 125 seats Ukip is defending from 2014 to be wiped out.
London has been trending towards Labour for several years now. At the 2017 general election the party did over 13 percentage points better in London than in Britain as a whole compared to relatively average performances in the years up to 1997. It now needs little more than 150 net gains to match its best ever result in the capital of 1,220 seats, registered in 1971. The Conservatives, by contrast, are within 100 losses of their worst showing of 519 seats in 1994.
National equivalent vote
Barnet LBC is the council where the Conservatives are most vulnerable on paper, but it could be that Labour underperforms in a borough which is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Hillingdon LBC could also slip from the Conservatives’ grasp.
The pre-election game of expectations management is most apparent though across the three west central boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea RBC, Wandsworth LBC and Westminster City Council. The Conservatives are happy to claim they may well lose all three; Labour, notably in the form of London mayor Sadiq Khan, is dismissing the idea that the party can break through in such traditional Conservative heartlands. Labour is likely to make significant seat gains in these boroughs, but it would mark a real shift in political power if it took outright control of any of them. Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster have been Conservative since their inception in 1964; Wandsworth since 1978.
Another, entirely different party struggle will be fought out in a trio of affluent south-west boroughs. In both Kingston upon Thames RBC and Richmond upon Thames LBC it is the Liberal Democrats who will be taking the fight to the incumbent Conservatives and expecting to benefit from support among the majority Remain electorates. In Sutton LBC, by contrast, it is the Liberal Democrats who must defend their near 30-year reign. A swing of 5% to the Conservatives would see them lose 18 seats and leave control on a knife edge.
Labour controls all but six of the 36 metropolitan boroughs and that will not change radically. Indeed the party could close in on polling more than half of all the votes cast for the first time since 1996. Trafford MBC may be taken directly from the Conservatives, but a hung council is the more likely outcome. Kirklees Metropolitan Council and Walsall MBC are also possible gains, although the party has flattered only to deceive in both before.
Dudley MBC, on the other hand, offers a chance for the Conservatives. Ukip won seven seats here in 2014 – six in traditionally Conservative territory. Recovering that ground would see them drawing much closer to Labour.
The impact of the decline of Ukip is also likely to be an important factor in the unitary and district councils. In Plymouth City Council Labour look well placed to regain control by winning back Ukip seats from 2014 in three usually heartland wards. In North East Lincolnshire Council too Labour could get close to a majority by reclaiming formerly safe wards either from Ukip itself or from candidates elected for the party who subsequently defected to the Conservatives.
In Thurrock Council, former Ukip councillors have formed themselves into a new Independent grouping. They failed their first test in a recent by-election, but the tightness of local politics was illustrated by Labour and the Conservatives tying in that particular battle. Thurrock will remain hung.
Although most of the second-tier districts with elections this year are in largely urban areas, it is the Conservatives who defend most seats and councils. And it is to Ukip again that they will be looking to pick up formal gains from 2014 in parts of eastern England such as Basildon and Great -Yarmouth BCs and Rochford DC.
Anything approaching a decent performance by Labour should see them take Amber Valley BC straight from the Conservatives, but few other councils offer the opportunity for a direct gain in control as opposed to picking up the odd seat. In Worcester City Council, for example, Labour needs just two gains, but in each case a swing into double figures is required.
The Liberal Democrats defend control in four districts, with boundary changes leading to all-out elections in two of them – Eastleigh BC and South Lakeland DC. They should hang on in each case, but South Lakeland will be an interesting contest given the narrowness of local MP Tim Farron’s victory at the general election last year and his subsequent standing down as party leader.
Elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats have continued to be important local government players even as they are in the national doldrums. Maidstone BC and St Albans City and DC are among the councils they may target for gains as they necessarily revert back to their tactics of 30 years ago in trying to build and spread from a limited number of target areas.
The four London mayoral contests all look shoe-ins for Labour despite Sir Steve Bullock standing down in Lewisham LBC and Sir Robin Wales being deselected in Newham LBC. The selection of the Labour candidate for the inaugural Sheffield City Region elections was similarly controversial, but for Dan Jarvis MP surely the internal party hurdle was a bigger test than the now wider electoral one.
Another long-serving mayor not competing this year is Liberal Democrat Dorothy Thornhill in Watford BC. She has consistently outperformed her own party over the years, including most impressively on the day of the 2010 general election. Her potential successor – Peter Taylor – can though take heart from the Liberal Democrats easily topping the poll at last year’s Hertfordshire CC elections in the borough.
Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, associate members, Nuffield College, Oxford
Local Elections 2018: London boroughs and metropolitan boroughsLondon and metropolitan boroughs
Local Elections 2018: Unitary authorities and district councilsUnitary authorities and district councils
Local Elections 2018: TotalTotal
Local Elections 2018: Ten councils to watch (scroll through table below)Local Elections 2018: Ten councils to watch (current control)