This year’s local elections are the first serious national electoral test for the new Conservative leader – a familiar pattern for this particular cycle of contests that performed the same function for both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Given the consensus of the polls (at the time of writing) that, for the first time in 13 years, the Tories are enjoying a consistent if small lead, it would be a major setback for David Cameron if the Tories failed to exceed the level they reached in 1998 or 2002 by a very significant margin. As always, though, the story is likely to be a complex one.
Around 23 million voters, all in England, have the opportunity to vote on May 4, approximately 55 per cent of the British electorate. This includes the whole of London, where the 1,861 borough council seats represent over 40 per cent of the 4,378 up for election across the country. So what happens in London has a disproportionate effect on the numbers of councillors elected. If, as is probable, the capital exhibits some idiosyncratic trends, it may well distort the proper understanding of the outcome.
In total there are 177 councils with elections, with those outside London electing either one-third or one-half of their councillors. They include all 36 metropolitan along with 20 unitary and 89 shire districts. Of the 177 total, 57 are controlled by the Tories, 46 by Labour and 12 by the Liberal Democrats. The seats to be contested divide between 1,782 defended by Labour, 1,509 by the Conservatives and 903 by the Liberal Democrats. There are also four mayoral elections in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham and Watford.
Despite Labour’s long opinion poll advantage it is actually seven years since the party enjoyed a lead in the May local elections. Even William Hague in 2000 managed an 8 per cent margin, although it was on the same day that he lost the Romsey by-election. During the 2001 to 2005 parliamentary cycle, when these seats were last elected, the Conservatives enjoyed two victories of substantial proportions, and Labour’s best performance was to be just one per cent behind in 2002. The results in 2003 and especially 2004 were among the worst in the party’s recent history, in the latter case estimated to have been behind the Liberal Democrats with a 26 per cent share of the vote.
So in London, which last elected its councillors in 2002, the baseline against which these elections will be measured is considerably higher than in those councils, including the metropolitan boroughs, which were last contested in 2004, and logically it is quite likely that the swings and seat change trends will be very different.
All of these assumptions are complicated by the uncertain prospects of the Liberal Democrats. Many assume that their farcical antics and political divisions of recent months will prove electorally damaging in May, but their local base is often oblivious to national trends. This is the single most important reason why local elections are so complex to define and arguably becoming less reflective of national political patterns. The growing consensus is that they are becoming more fragmented, susceptible to neighbourhood issues, campaigns and personalities. It is still true that any national swing will be reflected in most results, but the potential for individual councils and wards to defy the broad picture appears to be increasing.
The Tories though just need to match their results from 2003 and 2004 to expect to make many gains among the 117 councils and 3,200 seats which were last contested in 2002. This implies that, at the very least, they should be capturing authorities such as Croydon and Bexley in outer London; the latter was an unexpected Labour gain in 2002, and the former has topped the Tories’ London target list ever since they lost it in 1994. Croydon Central, a constituency symbolically polarised between Labour north and Tory south, tipped to the Tories by just 75 votes in 2005, but that is not necessarily an augury for the local elections. Croydon has bucked the trend before and a handful of voters in Norbury and Waddon wards were decisive in 2002. Beyond that, both Merton and Hammersmith and Fulham are boroughs where the Tories made parliamentary gains last year and on paper are within their range if they are ahead nationally. If they miss any of these then Cameron will be well short of the point reached by Michael Howard in 2004.
If, however, Cameron is serious about breaking out of the Tory heartlands and appealing to urban voters, then the bar he must clear is set much higher. Even after Labour’s setbacks in the elections of 2004, there are still five major metropolitan districts where not a single Tory councillor has been elected for over 10 years, including the cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. In the metropolitan boroughs the Tories are defending just 187 seats of the 815 to be elected, and, if they fail to make substantial advances over that number, then the suspicion will be that any Cameron appeal will have failed to do more than entrench them in territory which they already occupy. Other councils like Birmingham and Bradford, as well as the key Pennine authorities of Calderdale and Kirklees, have been Tory-controlled in the past, and will need to be again if they are to be convincing contenders in the marginal seats which they contain.
The Liberal Democrats have made much of their progress in Labour areas and, following their capture of Liverpool and Newcastle, they are now mounting a challenge in Manchester on the back of their capture of the Withington parliamentary seat. Their two new MPs in London will also want to see the toppling of Labour councils in Haringey and Brent, as well as Camden, if the Lib Dems are to claim convincingly that the party’s 2005 gains were anything more than a result of short-term and shallow protest voting.
Ultimately, of course, if the Lib Dems want to be taken seriously, it requires them not just to gain councils but to hold them for an extended period of time, something which in general they have failed to do. Any sign of fragmentation in Liverpool, Newcastle, Islington or any other of their urban local government strongholds, will be an indication that their vaunted challenge to the Labour heartlands is fitful and insecure.
These elections will take place against a new political backdrop of two new party leaders and, undoubtedly, they will act at least in part as a referendum on how the Tories and Lib Dems, as well as the government, have conducted themselves over the last year. It would though, at this early stage of the parliamentary cycle, be reckless to over-interpret the significance of whatever the results may be. Only twice since 1990 has the government party ‘won’ the May local elections, yet only once in the four general elections over that period has the electorate voted to change the government. Since 1999, Labour’s local elections performance has diverged further and further from its true strength, as the Lib Dems have exploited the weakness of the Tories and turnout differentials have increased. This by itself poses challenges for Labour to stabilise and restore its local government base, but opposition parties still have much to do to show that anything significant has changed.
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