The local elections matter hugely to all four parties.
Voters will soon flock to the polls to vote in the last round of local elections for many areas before the next General Election. 27 councils are up for grabs, with all but one (Cumbria, NOC) of them being currently Tory run. For weeks, parties have been trying to manage expectations. These elections matter to all four parties, but for very different reasons.
The local elections in 2009 were a disaster for Labour, seeing them drop to a base of just 23 percent. The flip side of this of course is that they’ll take many of these back and be able to package it as an endorsement of Labour’s anti austerity message, and a rejection of the failed Coalition.
But all this leads to heightened expectations. People are expecting big numbers from Labour, and anything less than a gain of 400 seats will be seen as a failure.
More to the point, where Labour wins is just as important, if not more. For despite Coalition difficulties, Labour are having difficulty in the rural areas and the South. A humiliating fourth in Eastleigh underlines just how bad things are. Granted, Eastleigh is not a target seat, but the party of opposition should not be coming fourth in a mid-term by election – ever.
Labour will always hold the inner cities simply by virtue of not being Tories, but if they are to truly hold the mantel of the One Nation party, they need to find resonance beyond simply opposing the barley existent cuts. This is probably why Labour have started to talk about immigration, an issue that effects the South East disproportionately. A big night for Labour will also strengthen Ed Milliband’s hand in his increasingly public tiff with the unions who got him into the top job.
There are over 1,500 Conservative Councillors facing re-election on the 2nd of May, but so many of these were soft wins, taken from an exhausted and detested Labour government in 2009; it would be remarkable if the Tories didn’t loose at least a quarter of them. If the Conservatives can keep their losses below 500, they can probably put it down to mid term blues. The Tories will be hoping that modest growth, along with an absence of any real alternative from Labour will see them hold at least some ground.
And with the Tories starting at such a high number of councillors, even loosing a third will see them retain a healthy number.
The win in Eastleigh did much to boost Lib Dem moral, they had been the lightening rod for much of the hostility towards the government early on in the Coalition. Forced to drop their flagship tuition fees pledge was a bitter pill, as was the failure of AV and House of Lords Reform. Arguably, too many Lib Dems had a hard time dealing with being the bad guy, having spent so long being able to paint themselves as the party of sunshine and lollipops.
But current Lib Dem problems in the opinion polls overlook the fact that they have a remarkable grassroots machine; possibly the best in the business. Predictions of a Lib Dem massacre are over stated and unhelpfully simplistic. With just over 480 councillors facing re-election, having received 28 percent of the vote last time, some casualties are inevitable. However losses will be modest and most likely to come in traditional Labour areas. And don’t be surprised to see a few pinched from incumbent Tories.
The wild card in all this is UKIP. A string of seconds on by-elections and consistently in double figures in the polls, the new kids on the block are in an understandably chirpy mood. In some areas they are fielding triple the number of candidates from 2009. However stats like this are meaningless for such a small and new(ish) party. No two sets of UKIP results are yet comparable.
UKIP may have the wind at their backs in the polls, but they have several things counting against them. An inexperienced and under resourced election machine means that many UKIP candidates are fighting on their own dime and their own shoe leather. Money was poured into Rochdale, Corby and Eastleigh, and with hope of coming first at the European Elections next year, there’s much less to spare for these elections.
UKIP also have to battle the perception of inexperience. They are now the main party of protest, but with so few councillors elsewhere, they aren’t trusted enough with the leavers of power. UKIPs best hope is in existing councillors who recently defected from other parties. A tried and tested councillor with a UKIP badge next to their name will do much to help the party image, an image in need of help at the moment.
UKIP won’t actually gain many councillors. If they gain more than 10 councillors we might be shocked. However their share of the vote will increase hugely. The significance will be determined, however, by who they take it from. Although UKIP have an image of being a Thatcherite Party, their best results come in Labour areas.
Results will come in early on the 3rd of May and will provide political animals with fodder for weeks to come. Pot holes and bin collections have never been so much fun!