This year is not the biggest for the number of seats up for election in Councils across the UK on 3rd May but it is important nonetheless. The contest between Ken and Boris in London has been attracting considerable attention but little has been said about the elections to the London Assembly. In 11 major cities there are referenda for elected Mayor’s and in Glasgow and Birmingham there is the possibility of a change of control. I will discuss these below.
However, first of all let’s have a look at some of the numbers. There are a third of the seats in 36 English Metropolitan Districts and 16 Unitary Authorities, plus all-out elections in Swindon and Hartlepool due to boundary changes. A third of seats in 63 Shire District Councils, half the seats in 7 Shire Districts, and all-out elections in four. In Wales there are elections to 21 out of 22 Councils with just over 1,200 seats up for election. In Scotland all 32 local Councils have elections
The vibrancy of local party organisations can to some extent be judged by the number of seats they are contesting. MPs are supported by their local Councillors, leaflets are delivered and fundraising social events organised. There are 2,416 seats up for election in England this year. The Conservatives are fighting almost every seat with 2,346 candidates, Labour has 2,306 candidates, but surprisingly the Lib Dems are only fielding 1,703 candidates. There are many seats up and down the land with no Lib Dem candidate.
In the run up to the elections all major parties try to damp down expectations of gains and losses so that they can claim a great triumph whatever happens. It is therefore best to ignore the claims of the parties and look at what independent election experts predict. Professor Colin Rallings of the LGC Elections Centre at Plymouth University reckons that Labour should be looking at least 600 gains and possibly as many as 700, with 200 coming from Unitary Authorities and 120 in Wales.
The last time these seats were contested was 2008 when the Conservatives were riding high in the polls at over 40% and Labour under Gordon Brown was in the doldrums. Conservative losses to Labour are therefore expected but may be mitigated by gains from the Lib Dems in the South of England. The Lib Dems will probably do better than their current 8-10% poll rating implies but net losses to both of the larger parties are a certainty, not helped by their failure to contest so many seats.
In London the Assembly is currently Cons 11, Lab 8, LD 3, Green 2, Ind 1 (ex BNP). All parties expect some shift from Conservative to Labour this time around. There are several marginal seats which are difficult to call and the combination of constituency and top up lists makes the final results hard to call. The BNP will probably lose their one seat and UKIP may pick up one. The Mayoralty is the real prize however and Labour had high hopes of Ken Livingstone regaining the position once again. His tax avoidance revelations have damaged his chances and Boris seems to be attracting a lot of non-tribal support, particularly in the outer London Boroughs.
In Birmingham the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition may struggle to hold on and Labour sources seem confident of taking control of the UK’s second city. Labour is the largest party with 57 Councillors, the Conservatives have 39 and there are 24 Lib Dem. The seats up for election on 3rd May are 18 Cons, 13 LD and only 9 Labour, so Labour are defending few with the chances for big gains from Lib Dems particularly. Interestingly there are SDP candidates standing in some of the wards!
In Glasgow Labour has been riven by defections and splits and the SNP are very hopeful of taking control. In total 20 Labour Councillors have not been reselected to stand again for their party and seven have since resigned from the party with one facing assault charges.
The nightmare scenario for Labour would be failing to take the London Mayoralty, failing to take control of Birmingham and losing Glasgow to the SNP. These are the contests which will receive the most attention rather than numbers of gains of individual Council seats.