Labour is on course to make upwards of 500 gains and take control of several additional councils in May’s local elections.
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However, this is more a reflection of the low base from which the party starts rather than an indication that it has established a substantial lead in popular support. Currently it is neck and neck with the Conservatives in the opinion polls and just ahead of them in our own monitoring of the local byelections that take place up and down the country every week.
As ever the conundrum will be the Liberal Democrats. They struggle to break into double figures in the daily polling carried out by YouGov, but nestle in the mid-teens according to the results of real elections.
Nearly 5,000 seats in 181 councils in England, Scotland and Wales are up for grabs. In addition of course, and likely to attract the bulk of media attention, there are elections for the London mayor and assembly as well as inaugural mayoral contests in Liverpool and Salford and referendums in 10 other large cities. Electors in Doncaster, by contrast, are being asked whether they want to abolish their own directly elected mayoralty.
For the second year running Labour is faced with an open goal at the council elections. Their run of poor results at this point of the electoral cycle dates back to 2000. They lost 600 seats then, followed by losses of more than 400 seats in 2004, when the Iraq war remained a handicap, and again in 2008 as storm clouds gathered over the economy and Gordon Brown’s leadership.
In those two contests they could attract the support of no more than a quarter of voters and each in turn was their worst set of local election results since reorganisation in the early 1970s. They are therefore certain to bounce back now.
They can make almost 300 gains simply by repeating last year’s pincer movement against the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the metropolitan boroughs, and will hope to recoup most of the 130 losses they suffered in Wales four years ago.
The Conservatives confounded many commentators last year by emerging from the local elections with their number of both councils and councillors intact. They achieved that by compensating for losses to Labour in the north and Midlands with sweeping gains from the Liberal Democrats in whole council elections in the suburban and rural south of England.
This year, however, they must defend their best local election result for nearly two decades - when they polled a national equivalent of 43% of the vote in 2008 - and have fewer opportunities to prosper at the expense of their coalition partners.
For example, there are a little over 1,000 seats falling vacant in southern England compared with more than 5,000 in 2011, and the Conservatives face the loss of 100 seats in the metropolitan boroughs alone even if they match their performance of 12 months ago.
Although the Liberal Democrats outstripped their poll rating in May 2011, they nonetheless lost half the seats they were defending and nearly one in four of all their sitting councillors in England.
The contests this year are less widespread, but they could easily find themselves another 200 seats or so down and with fewer than 3,000 councillors across the country for the first time since 1986. That would represent a further blow to a party whose whole electoral strategy has been based on building up from the grassroots.
The pattern of voting will have its first impact in individual local authorities. The largest council in the country, Birmingham City Council, is now firmly in Labour’s sights. The party needs only five gains to take overall control and won all the key wards and more besides in 2011, mainly at Liberal Democrat expense.
Labour can also take Bradford City MDC for the first time this century with a swing from the Conservatives of less than 1% since 2008 in two of the Keighley wards.
In Walsall MBC, where the Conservatives lost control only last year, Labour’s task looks tough on paper but a repeat of 2011’s results would give them a majority.
The three Conservative metropolitan boroughs, Dudley, Solihull and Trafford MBCs, should be secure this year, but the Liberal Democrats must be concerned that their grip on the minority administration in Stockport MBC will be prised away.
Among the unitaries, Plymouth City Council looks the one council likely to swing straight from Conservative to Labour control. A swing of 5% from 2008 is needed and Labour won all four pivotal wards last year.
Labour should also be able to carve out a majority in North East Lincolnshire Council and have a good chance in Reading and Thurrock BCs too. Derby City Council, where the party needs a swing approaching double figures from both its rivals, is a taller order.
In Peterborough City Council, one of the few councils with elections this year to defy Eric Pickles’ council tax freeze, the Conservatives have sufficiently large majorities to protect most of their seats and retain control.
Six of the seven districts in which half the council comes up for election should be retained by the controlling party. The seventh, Nuneaton & Bedworth BC, is an easy Labour target.
Elsewhere, although elections by thirds limit the scope for dramatic change, there are several authorities where Labour could wrest control in hung councils by matching its 2011 performance. Among them are Cannock Chase DC, Carlisle, Exeter and Norwich city councils, and Rossendale BC.
In Harlow DC they could go one better by posting a direct swap with the Conservatives. The half dozen Liberal Democrat-controlled districts seem relatively safe, although a bad night could rob them of a majority on Cambridge City Council and a close watch will be kept on Eastleigh BC for any backlash following MP Chris Huhne’s resignation from the Cabinet.
Scotland and Wales together account for more than half of all the seats up in May. In Scotland, where the last local elections were held five years ago, the SNP can expect to capitalise on their current buoyant ratings. They just failed to beat Labour in the popular vote in 2007, but won more seats than their rivals. This time Alex Salmond will consider it a disappointment if his party doesn’t come out on top on both measures.
There may, however, be few noticeable changes to the headlines of council control. The single transferable vote system used in Scotland ensured that only three out of 32 councils had a party political majority last time. Labour was the victor in each of those cases, but now looks vulnerable in Glasgow City Council and Midlothian Council.
If Labour should lose its majority in Glasgow (where the party has been rent by internal disputes) it will be for the first time since 1977 when, in a clear sign of the changed nature of Scottish politics, it was the Conservatives who were the next largest party.
Casual observers may be surprised that Labour controls even fewer councils in Wales than in Scotland. The party performed poorly here as elsewhere in 2008, and was hard hit by an Independent surge in former heartland areas such as Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen CBCs.
Arguably of greater long-term electoral significance though will be the results in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan councils. The Liberal Democrats are in danger of losing their hold as a minority administration in the capital with as many as a dozen seats at risk to a swing of just 4% to either Labour or the Conservatives since 2008.
The Vale of Glamorgan is a traditional Conservative/Labour battleground. The Conservatives lose control if just two seats slip away on a 3% swing to Labour; Labour need 11 gains for a majority of their own. The former is the more likely outcome.
National Equivalent Vote at local elections 2000-11