Interest in local elections tends to see them as a weather vane for future general election. They do fulfil that function to some degree, but we should also remember that they tell us a great deal about the state of politics and the aspirations and frustrations of communities at the most grass roots level. They also, it is often forgotten, make a huge difference to the everyday lives of millions of people as they shape the way they are governed, the types of services they receive and the sorts of places they live in.
With that in mind, here are five key questions into which the local elections should give us some insight.
What can UKIP really achieve? This year will see for the first time UKIP actively taking on the three main parties, challenging most county seats with 1,734 candidates standing. Nigel Farage has said that this election will see the anti-Europe party establish a ‘bridgehead’ in the counties. Perhaps a slightly less rousing equivalent to 1983’s order to, ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government’. The question many national commentators will be asking is whether we will see the birth of a genuinely national political party with representatives on the ground, or if in fact this election is UKIP’s ‘SDP-Alliance moment’ which will create a bake on further success. As Eastleigh shows us, national parties rely on local knowledge from local councillors to achieve victory.
How firm is the conservative vote? The Tories control most county councils and are likely to maintain their Southern redoubt. Counties such as Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Essex, Surrey and Kent have very little opposition and other parties will need massive and probably unachievable swings to change this. Leicestershire has lost a leader in a coup and saw the subsequent defection of its deputy leader. Will voters repudiate the Party for such public infighting? The UKIP effect will be a major test for conservatives as they balance defending local priorities and national policies of the Coalition. The Party could lose out to independents and candidates who were previously Tory. Downing Street will be keeping a close eye on the results as a sign of how strong dissatisfaction in the party is. It will be a good night for the Prime Minister if Conservative unity is preserved against the UKIP threat and local defection to independent councillors. Expectations are being carefully managed but a loss of no more than 450 seats would probably count as a good result.
How much progress have Labour made? The last time county councils elected, Labour lost control of every single county in the country, its lowest moment in its transition from Downing Street to opposition. This means that Labour have only one way to go – up. The party is playing down the idea of success, predicting 250 seats turning red. It is inevitable that national media will play the line that Ed Miliband has still not convinced Southern voters of his or his Party’s appeal. This claim would be mistaken due to the swing needed to make any headway, however the party does need to show some movement. Voters in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Cumbria, and unitary Durham will answer this question. Similarly Labour will need to start rebuilding in counties it previously controlled such as Staffordshire and Warwickshire. The results of the East Midland counties are perhaps of greater interest in divining Labour’s health nationally, rather than the South. For Labour to have any hope of winning in 2015 it will need to start improving results in the East Midlands – an often overlooked barometer of the national political scene. To speak of the South, one needs to first answer the East Midlands question.
Can the Liberal Democrats hang on? Local elections for the Lib Dems may actually be a rare piece of good news. With traditional heartlands such as Cornwall currently under no overall control, a Lib Dem recovery here is not out of the question. Similarly Somerset, another heartland, will be in contention and will see Coalition partners take up arms against one another once more. Northumberland is another Lib Dem potential with perhaps the only three way contest. Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid will not be surprised to be in post on May 3rd.
Will innovative councils be rewarded? Local elections, famed for their low turnout are often derided as simply barometers of national politics. National opposition tends to do better whilst governing parties feel the wrath of the electorate. But this is a very simple conclusion. Local electors will be judging their council’s performance based on how budget cuts have been managed. Has local innovation stirred the mood of the electorate? Has local political infighting left a bad taste in the mouths of voters? What sort of behaviour will voters reward?
The LGiU will be watching the results closely and will be preparing to call the results thanks to a large group of councillors reporting back from the counts. True politicos will be dusting off their psephology hats and settling down to hearing what the country thinks, 2 years before the minor matter of a general election. If you want to join us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.