Senior councillors from mainstream political parties expect independents and candidates from smaller local parties to make the most gains in today’s polls.
Earlier this week, Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer and leading local elections expert, said that he believes the Tories will lose 800 councillors compared with results four years ago as voters punish the party for the Brexit deadlock, with Labour gaining 300 seats and the Liberal Democrats 500.
Conservative chair of the Local Government Association Lord Porter disputes this prediction. “I think the electorate are more sophisticated than that. Labour is facing the same troubles – especially in the North West.
“The big winners, from the LGA perspective, will be from the [LGA’s] independent group. They will likely win the most seats. The Liberal Democrats I think are struggling to gain ground.”
The LGA’s independent group includes independent candidates as well as those form smaller parties such as Ukip and the Green Party.
While Lord Porter admits voters are concerned about Brexit, he expects them to vent their anger in the EU elections, not the local ones.
The Tories are trying to keep Brexit “off the agenda”, he admitted. “We know from local polling that the [recent Parliamentary] recess was great for us – it should have gone on for longer.
“Thankfully, the Conservative party has done nothing overly stupid in the last week.”
Altogether 8,374 council seats across 248 councils and five executive mayors are up for election.
Marianne Overton (Ind), vice chair of the LGA and lead for the Independent Group of councillors on the board, said: “I think the independent group will do best. They are well organised and will connect well with their communities.”
Cllr Overton who represents the Lincolnshire Independents on Lincolnshire CC and North Kesteven DC added: “We are trying to get across the message of the importance of local government.”
Neither Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party nor the centrist Change UK are contesting the polls, but Change UK has just announced its support for “candidates of pro-People’s Vote and pro-Remain parties” such as the Lib Dems.
The LGA’s Lib Dem group leader, Howard Sykes, said he will be “disappointed” if the party does not make “hundreds of gains”.
“Whether we will see any councils change control, that’s a different question,” he added.
“I think my colleagues in the East Midlands and Liverpool are feeling bullish.”
Cllr Sykes says there are more “place-first” grassroots local parties standing this year, which he blames on the “weaknesses of Labour and the Conservatives”.
“It’s easier for people to network now and set up a party,” he said. ”It will be interesting to see how these parties fare – and how they will do if they’re elected.”
In Greater Manchester, several distinctly local parties have formed in recent times. One of these, campaigning in Bolton MBC, is Horwich and Blackrod First, formed by Marie Brady and Steven Chadwick in February.
Mr Chadwick says that there are now six local political parties within 10 to 15 miles of his home in Horwich, which have all formed in the last two years.
“Across Greater Manchester and North Cheshire, there is a lot of ill feeling that the Local Government Act of 1974 has put all these unique towns under the same borough, with Bolton getting the biggest slice of the funding,” he said. “It’s resulted in this big shift towards local parties.”
And the Farnworth and Kearsley First Group, which was formed two years ago in Bolton has scooped three seats on a council that had been solidly Labour for more than 40 years, and are hoping to win more on Thursday.
The Stalybridge Town Party is campaigning to install two councillors on Tameside MBC, also in Greater Manchester.
In the West Midlands, the Black Country party, which was founded last October, is fielding 15 candidates, with 12 standing in Dudley MBC, two in Sandwell MBC and one on Wolverhampton City Council.
Both Lord Porter and Cllr Sykes say they don’t think voter turnout will be much lower than usual. Cllr Sykes, who is a councillor for Oldham MBC, says some of the electorate have told him they will “never vote again” after voting in the referendum “for a Brexit that still hasn’t happened” - but also that others, “who aren’t usually political”, will be prompted by their anger with mainstream politics into voting for the first time.
LGC contacted a number of senior Labour councillors contesting elections this time but none responded to our request for comment.