Analysis: Shock - Labour to lose election on June 7

31 May 01
Here is a bold prediction: Labour will lose the election on June 7. Major seats will be lost, the party's share of the vote will be lower than the Conservatives and they could lose their position as the dominant political force in the country.

01 June 2001

But the vote in question is not the general election. It is the poll, on the same day, to decide the control of 46 English county and unitary councils.

It is a political and psephological paradox that the more Labour's lead holds up in the national polls, the more pressure they are likely to face in local government after June 7.

Recent local polls point to the Tories coming out on top. In total, 2,450 seats are up for grabs. A large number of these, 973, are currently held by the Conservatives. But more than 830 Labour seats are also being contested, and even a gentle swing away from Labour among these, just 1 or 2%, will see the local government map turn from red to blue.

Among those counties looking susceptible to a Tory takeover is Essex, where there is currently no overall control, although the Conservatives have almost 50% of the seats.

Leicestershire, Norfolk, Worcestershire and Dorset are also top Tory targets. At unitary level, the Isle of Wight and Wokingham could feasibly fall to the Tory foot soldiers.

Labour is also coming under pressure from the Liberal Democrats. They are hoping to wrestle control away from Labour in Bristol, where criticism of local policies and a disastrous referendum on council tax earlier this year have left the majority party looking weak. The LibDems also have an outside chance in Gloucestershire.

For the Tories, any success would be further proof of their local resurgence, after the dark days of 1993 when they were almost wiped off the map at county council level. Then only Buckinghamshire remained steadfast to the Conservative cause. 'I think we are going to do very well,' says Tory peer Lord Hanningfield.

For once his confidence may not be misplaced. Success at local level may not provide much consolation for Tory activists. But a resurgence could herald more vocal opposition to Labour policies from the country's town halls, assuming Tony Blair is elected for a second term. 'We shall oppose and it will be a very difficult time for the government,' says Hanningfield.

And it is not just the Conservatives who are vowing to turn the heat on the government. John Miller, acting chief executive of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councils, says: 'Councils will be more critical of the government.'

Future dissent may not only be among individual councils but also at the Local Government Association, where the leadership has to reflect the political composition of councils nationally. Until now it has always been Labour-led.

This could change, although it would require a big effort on the part of the Tories. Currently Labour has 8,500 councillors nationally, the Tories 6,800, with the Lib Dems trailing on 4,450.

Labour should remain the largest party in local government, but its position is likely to come under increasing threat from the Tories. Miller believes a narrowing of this gap will provide a focus for opposition, especially over the 'extent of externalisation' of services away from local government to the private sector.

If externalisation continues apace and faces little opposition from town halls, it could have serious ramifications for the very future of county councils, says Miller. He believes local government will face further re-organisation in the next Parliament and that the counties will bear the brunt.

He even predicts the demise of county councils in favour of a structure involving a mixture of regional and local (unitary and parish) government. 'By the time four years have gone by, local government will look very different than it does now. There's a question of whether or not in four years' time we will have county council elections,' he says.

Hanningfield disagrees, but is hardly more positive. He is worried that district councils, rather than county councils, are looking vulnerable to further reorganisation. Recent ministerial speeches suggest he may be right.

The one saviour for Labour on June 7 could be the turnout. Low turnouts among British voters traditionally favour the Conservatives. The Tories have benefited from their supporters' tendency to be less apathetic about voting – turnout at recent local government elections averaged just 28%.

This year, however, the local elections coincide with the general election – only the third time this has happened, after 1997 and 1979. On both previous occasions, the turnout topped 70%. A similar headcount on June 7 could enable Labour to head off a revolt in the shires and town halls.


Did you enjoy this article?