News analysis - Labour shows few signs of mid-term blues

29 Apr 99
On May 6, the local council elections in England, Wales and Scotland will be an important test of the state of the parties.

30 April 1999

Wedged in the middle of the higher-profile elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, these will be the last major local elections before legislation to introduce mayors and cabinets attempts to alter the face of local political management, service delivery and accountability.

More importantly, the results will show whether Labour has avoided the mistakes of the former Conservative government and kept a watchful eye on local politics and local opinion.

Labour has much to lose in this mid-term test. Around 13,000 seats are being contested on 360 councils around the country. These include wards in almost all major cities outside London, including Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds. In Scotland and Wales, seats in 51 councils are up for grabs.

Labour apparatchiks point out that the party's 1995 landslide victory, when it won around 2,000 council seats, is unlikely to be repeated.

Pundits put Labour's potential losses for this year's elections at around 1,000 seats but, if recent by-election results are any indication, a swing of 10% from Labour to Conservative in the Midlands alone is a cautious estimate.

The party's main problem will be apathy. Turnout in last year's local elections was around 28% and, historically, the party has an apathetic membership in local elections. Its 1995 landslide was provided by former disgruntled Conservative voters who bestowed around 1,880 seats on Labour.

Only on May 7 will Labour discover just how damaging have been the high-profile cases of sleaze and corruption in Labour-run councils in the past two years.

Despite such potential losses, Howard Knight, the head of Labour's local government unit, says 'there is still all to play for'.

Tony Blair is trying to reassure voters that only Labour can deliver the £40bn public expenditure it promised on hospitals and schools, as well as modern public services.

Francis Maude, the shadow chancellor, may belatedly have matched that £40bn promise on April 26. But Tory leader William Hague's apparent attempt to shift the party away from Thatcherite dedication to privatisation in education and health has caused confusion, if not outrage, in the shires.

For the Conservatives, 1999 could prove to be their first step out of the local government wilderness. Once the first party of local government, they were relegated to third place behind the Lib Dems in 1995.

The Tories control around 25 town halls in England. They have spent the past two years apologising for marginalising their grass-root councillors.

Having made successive gains in recent by-elections, their campaign seeks to build on their new policies on local democracy with the slogan 'local issues, local choices, local decision-making'. Despite the obvious reference to sleaze in Labour councils, the Conservatives are also appealing to the pockets of voters with their 'pay less, get more' mantra.

Conservative central office has prepared a set of average band D council tax figures, which it claims, show Tory-run councils provide more services for less money. They claim that the average band D tax for a Labour-run council is £837 a year, a Lib Dem council £803 a year and £672 for a Conservative-run council.

It is hard to estimate how confident the Tories are of gaining seats. After saying Labour may be bolstered by the Balkans war, they lowered their projections from 1,200 seats (October 1998) to 400.

A party source admits that anything less than a gain of 1,000 seats would be worse than the humiliating 1997 General Election defeat.

However, Labour's immediate threat is from the Liberal Democrats, who look likely to take control of Sheffield, Chesterfield and Derbyshire. The party already has control of 40 authorities.

Nationally, the main campaign themes on education, crime and health hinge on adding 1p in the pound to the basic rate of income tax. Locally, councillors have used the campaign to vent their frustration at Labour's modernising agenda. Hywel Morgan, campaign officer at the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, says the policies 'take power from town halls and lack real thought and real support'.

In local government, any gains, however small, will bolster the influence of Tories and Lib Dems at the Local Government Association. The government relies heavily on the LGA to implement its modernising agenda, so a significant shift in the ruling majority could cause problems.

The number of votes cast during an election determines the LGA's leadership. Currently, Labour has a majority of 50.5%, the Conservatives 25.5% and Lib Dems 24%. Although both opposition parties need massive gains to take over the LGA, smaller gains would pass control of some key committees.

By the next major local elections in 2003, the regional political scene could be unrecognisable, with referendums on directly elected mayors in major cities, electronic voting in supermarkets and Best Value in service delivery. But will this modern agenda persuade the electorate to vote? Labour's Howard Knight says: 'It will take a long time to change the perception of local elections and the political mentality of local authorities. These are long-term aims.'


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