Local elections: counting down to polling day

29 Apr 14

The impact of the European elections on May’s council votes is the great unknown as people head to the polls to determine control of local authorities across the country.

This year’s local elections are, alongside the vote for the European Parliament, the parties’ last big political test before next year’s general election.


This year’s local elections are, alongside the vote for the European Parliament, the parties’ last big political test before next year’s general election.

Votes taking place on May 22, including all-out polls in 32 London boroughs, will also gauge popular reaction to economic recovery and government spending cuts – contests are being held in most English council seats for the first time since the coalition came to power.

A high-profile European campaign will draw the national focus, with the insurgent UK Independence Party favourite to win the largest share of the vote amid the increasingly loud debate over Britain’s future in the economic bloc.

Going into the election, Ukip (with 10 MEPs) is only the fourth biggest party, behind the Conservatives (27), Labour (13) and the Liberal Democrats (12). However, party leader Nigel Farage has said he is confident the party can cause ‘an earthquake’ by winning the largest national vote share.

Ukip’s surge makes predicting the outcome of elections in the 167 unitaries, metropolitan boroughs, districts and mayoralties being held on the same day difficult, say Chris Game, visiting lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies.

In last year’s county elections, Ukip won 147 seats across 23 authorities despite very few incumbents, which Game calls a tremendous achievement. Similarly to 12 months ago, there is no way to tell whether Ukip support is ‘welling up’, he tells Public Finance. ‘In one sense, they are the great unknown.’

According to Farage, Ukip will field its largest ever slate of candidates – more than 2,500. The party is ‘doing very well in local government’ and could make hundreds of gains, he has claimed.

Local government leaders of the three main parties all agree that Ukip will be the key factor in the campaign.

David Sparks, Labour’s leader in local government, tells PF he is confident the party will gain seats in the fifth local elections in a row. However, the results are unpredictable due to both the Euro election and the differing impact of expenditure cuts across authorities.

‘I am confident, but not complacent, that we will make further gains, but there are too many uncertainties to forecast with any precision,’ he says.

‘Genuinely, the big question is going to be Ukip. I would have preferred the local elections not to be on the same day as the European elections, but with it being on the same day and with Farage on a bit of a roll, it’s very difficult to predict.

‘Some seats will be gained that would not normally be gained and some will be lost that would not normally be lost,

because we can’t say what the impact that third party is going to have.’

The Liberal Democrats’ local government leader, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says the fact these wards have not been fought since 2010 means losses are likely for the coalition parties. ‘The question in the European election is will Ukip come top, and how the other parties will fare. The question in the locals is, given that these people were elected on the same day as the general elections four years ago, what’s happened to the parties in that time?’

Local elections since the formation of the coalition in Westminster have seen the LibDems lose large numbers of councillors – from more than 700 in 2011 to about 124 last year.

Although the starting point for the party is not as high in this year’s round of mainly urban authorities, Vernon-Jackson warns they still face a tough time, with control of his own authority of Portsmouth among those they are defending. ‘The people who are expecting to make big gains are Ukip and Labour,and you’ve got to make gains off somebody, so for both the Tories and us it will be a more difficult evening,’ he says.

Conservative local government leader Gary Porter says Ukip will add ‘a different flavour’ to the campaign. ‘Where Ukip is in contention, they will take votes from the main party, whoever the main party is,’ he predicts.

But he also hopes councils will be judged on their performance in dealing with government spending cuts. ‘The public now accepts that services haven’t been impacted as badly as everybody thought they would be with the reductions. Is that going to mean voters think we’ve got a good council, [and say] “I don’t care what colour they are, I’m going to be voting for them because they’ve managed to get through this round of austerity without a major impact”?’

Although hoping voters ‘look for the positives’, Porter tells PF that the Conservatives – who have overall or minority control of 21 unitary and metropolitan councils being contested – are likely to end the night with losses. Coupled with the votes taking place in 74 districts, change in the overall control of the Local Government Association is likely to follow. ‘I think Labour taking the chair is almost a certainty, and I’m sad as that won’t be the fault of our members, that will be for factors outside of their control,’ says Porter.

The most high-profile contests will be in the Southeast, where in addition to all-out boroughs in the capital, two unitaries – Milton Keynes and Slough – and two districts – Hart in Hampshire and Three Rivers in Hertfordshire – will elect wholly-new chambers after boundary changes.

Labour’s shadow minister for London Sadiq Khan has targeted six London councils to turn red – Croydon, Redbridge, Barnet, Harrow, Merton and Tower Hamlets. Chris Game says three represent ‘low-hanging fruit’ – Redbridge, Harrow and Merton. A high-profile mayoral contest also takes place in Tower Hamlets, one of five being held across London and in Watford.

The other two are more difficult targets for the party, he says, with Barnet, where the Tory administration controversially outsourced a host of services, the toughest. ‘It may be that Labour want to pick on Barnet as an example of some of the awful things that can happen under a Conservative administration.’

Tories have overall control of two mets going to the polls, and Game suggests that Trafford could be more vulnerable to Labour than Solihull. Of West Yorkshire’s three hung authorities, Bradford is likeliest to go to Labour’s overall control.

All projections are made without knowing where Ukip will pick up votes or seats, Game stresses. Although they are most likely to have a base in districts where they had county councillors elected last year, the number of all-out elections and some small wards increases volatility. Of the contests to watch, Ukip could make inroads in Milton Keynes, he says, where a full council election is being held following a boundary review.

‘I don’t think even they’ve got any idea how they’re going to do,’ Game concludes. ‘Nobody is putting any money on it because we genuinely don’t know.’






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