Local elections explained (30 April 2007)
The 2007 elections will mark a milestone in the deterioration of the Labour party as an organisation with a nationwide presence, writes Lewis Baston
For nearly all of England outside London, Thursday will be local election day.
The number of seats being contested is the largest in the complicated four-year cycle of local elections, and, although these elections will be overshadowed by those in Scotland and Wales, they are still important, both for local services and as an indicator of how the political parties are faring in England.
There are elections for 312 English councils, from big cities like Birmingham and Leeds to pocket-sized district councils like Teesdale and Maldon.
For the big provincial metropolitan areas the parties will be defending the seats they won in 2004, but in most of the rest of England the seats were last fought in 2003.
Neither 2003 nor 2004 was a particularly good year for the Labour party in the English local elections.
The 2003 elections followed shortly after the Iraq war and, although Labour still led in the polls, the party’s support was slipping rapidly.
The Conservatives did relatively well in this set of elections, although there was still a shadow over the party’s prospects and direction, and its leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was not faring well.
For the Liberal Democrats it was a good year, with gains from Labour in urban areas and a solid performance against the Conservatives in some rural and suburban areas.
The metropolitan boroughs and some of the unitary authorities were last contested in 2004, the only year in recent times when Labour has come third in the national vote share in the local elections (see table above).
Labour tends to do worse and the Conservatives and Lib Dems a little better than their national poll rating in local elections, in large part because of differential turnout.
If April’s poll figures are a guide for May’s results, the Conservatives are doing considerably better than in 2003 or 2004 and Labour worse.
The implied swing from Labour to Conservative since 2003 is 6%, according to these very rough and dubious calculations, but since 2004 only 3%.
Labour is in a similar position vis-a-vis the Lib Dems as in 2004, but a fraction worse off than in 2003.
The Conservatives also look as if they should make some progress against the Lib Dems, with a 4.5% swing since 2003 and 3.5% since 2004.
The relationship of these rough national swings and the territory being contested is interesting.
The swing to the Conservatives may be even larger in some of the shire districts last fought in 2003, particularly those in southern England where David Cameron seems to have gained most ground.
The 2006 swings in Crawley, for instance, were massive, and it is possible that similar results could take place in 2007.
In much of rural and suburban southern England, and the smaller towns of the Midlands, this could be an extremely good year for the Conservatives.
It is possible that Labour could be left with only two councils, outside London, south of a line from the Severn to the Wash, namely Reading and Stevenage.
The 2007 elections will be a further milestone in the deterioration of the Labour party as an organisation with a nationwide presence.
These losses will hurt because they are in places where the party needs to defend marginal parliamentary seats.
The Conservatives’ heavy local election losses in 1993-96 helped wreck the party’s organisation and make recovery from their 1997 defeat all the more difficult.
Labour is now undergoing a similar destructive retreat.
However, the swing from 2004 to 2007 is smaller. It will also probably be least evident in the metropolitan boroughs of the north and Midlands where the Conservatives did not perform well in 2006 and where Mr Cameron is less popular.
The pattern of gains and losses of votes and seats in 2007 is therefore likely to be very regionally skewed with Labour suffering massive damage in the south and its remaining outposts in rural and suburban England, but a lot less in the northern cities.
Labour might even make net progress against the Lib Dems in some areas (Luton, Leicester, Bradford) where Muslim voters turned against the party in 2003 and 2004 but have since swung back a bit.
The total of seats changing hands will exaggerate Labour’s defeat, as the smaller authorities electing all-out tend to have smaller wards; Labour’s worst performances will be in places where the number of seats lost looks bad, while holding steadier in the large urban wards where only one seat in three is at stake.
The Conservatives will hope to strike some blows against the Lib Dems and seize back authorities like rural Uttlesford in Essex which the Lib Dems won in 2003.
The Conservatives may do well against the Liberal Democrats, but it is likely that the British National party will also be able to boast some victories, both in its established areas in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and sporadically in some suburban and rural areas where it has previously not seemed much of a threat.
Not invariably, but often, it is neglected party heartlands that provide the BNP with most potential, coupled with a local political culture of xenophobic social conservatism with which Cameron cannot really connect.
Where the BNP is active, it has been able to scoop up a lot of discontented voters who feel ignored by the other parties, as in West Yorkshire towns such as Dewsbury and Batley.
The United Kingdom Independence party is also contesting a lot of seats, in what may be a last ditch attempt to prevent the BNP gaining primacy on the nationalist right of British politics.
The Conservatives should be able to claim an overall majority if the voting patterns are repeated in a general election, something they have not managed since 1992.
They are also likely to emerge the clear winners in the media’s favourite (but highly misleading) measure of success, the tally of the net number of seats won and lost, and will be appearing to do well in contrast to both Labour and Liberal Democrats.
A national vote share equivalent of more than 41%, or net gains of more than 600 seats, would be good news for the Conservatives.
Look on election night for what happens in the traditional party conference resorts.
The Conservatives currently control none out of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton but if they win all three they will be doing very well.
All they can ask of Manchester, Labour’s 2006 conference venue, is to gain their first seat in years on the city council.
The Conservatives may be doing well, but they are a long way short of the national sweep that Labour managed in Blair’s first set of local elections all the way back in 1995.