Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Local Government Studies, says the forthcoming local elections could see the continued recovery of the Labour Party after last year’s General Election disaster.
Local elections should be primarily about our choosing which councillors should represent us and which policies our councils should, or should not, pursue.
They should not be diminished by treating them, as Prime Ministers regularly do, as mock parliamentary elections – or, this time, as our first chance to give an electoral verdict on the national coalition.
This year, though, is a bit different. First, there is the near-impossibility of unravelling who really is to blame for the local service cuts that dominate all election debate: the councils implementing them, the national government whose grant cuts necessitated them, previous governments’ economic mismanagement, or even the uncontrollable evils of global capitalism.
Second, there is the Alternative Vote referendum – for all voters, including those with no local elections: in the West Midlands mainly those in the new unitary Shropshire, plus Nuneaton & Bedworth, who just like being different.
The referendum, concerned solely with parliamentary elections, means that this time we have to think national as well as local.
Third, while this article’s focus on councils’ party control emphasises the elections’ local importance, all local elections throw up themes and patterns in their aggregated results, and this year’s key theme will surely be the scale of Labour’s local recovery and its chief victims: the Tories or Lib Dems.
All national governments do badly in local elections, but Labour took it to extremes. By 2009-10, well over a third of shire districts had no Labour councillors at all. Conservatives dominated most town halls, though many onetime Labour heartlands were run wholly or in partnership by the Lib Dems: Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull, Bristol, Wolverhampton.
Then last May something odd happened. Just as Labour’s national unpopularity plumbed such depths that it was voted out, it simultaneously started winning back seats and councils.
Five additional seats in Birmingham; six in Coventry and majority control regained; seven in Sandwell; two in Solihull and the Conservatives displaced by a Lib Dem/Labour administration; two in Nuneaton & Bedworth and Labour back in minority control.
Labour’s local recovery was already under way, and all parties expect it to accelerate, because this year almost all English local authorities have elections – some electing a third of their councillors, others their whole council.
In both cases the actual seats being contested are those won and lost in 2007. It was a great year for the Conservatives, who gained more than 900 seats – which they must now defend – but awful for Labour.
The parties’ 2007 performances form one basis for this year’s predictions, together with a comparison of the respective opinion polls, which suggest a pro-Labour swing in voter support of around five per cent from the Conservatives since April 2007, and ten per cent from the Lib Dems.
METROPOLITAN BOROUGHS (one-third of council only)
For councils electing by thirds, there are also last year’s results, which the Birmingham Post’s Paul Dale incorporated in his recent overview of Birmingham prospects.
My reading of Paul’s observations is that he expects Labour to take at least six Conservative and three Lib Dem seats, making them again comfortably the largest party, but still well short of the 61 needed for an overall majority.
* Having regained Coventry, Labour will be aiming to re-establish their former dominance. A repeat of 2010 would double their overall majority to 12, but 437 extra votes in the right marginal wards last year could have gained four more seats, and with that performance this year the majority would reach 20.
Coventry is not Liberal-friendly territory, but, as elsewhere, the Lib Dems are fielding noticeably fewer candidates: nine, compared to last year’s 17. Meanwhile, the Greens have 16, the BNP (British National Party) 13, and the fiercely anti-cuts Socialist Alternative a full slate of 18.
* Dudley last year was an exception, the Conservatives increasing their overall majority to 16 by taking Kingswinford North & Wall Heath from the Lib Dems. The latter have had a presence on the council for nearly 20 years, but a rerun of 2010 would end that, while also helping the Conservatives to maintain majority control, despite facing several tight contests with both Labour and the UK Independence Party.
* In Sandwell we see most clearly the decline of the BNP. In 2007, hoping to add to their existing four councillors, the party ran 15 candidates. Today they have no councillors and just two candidates. The Conservatives are better placed, but their diminishing group of currently 11 councillors have also had a torrid year.
They ousted their leader, who sat as an Independent before forming a rival Traditional Conservative Party. Their deputy leader, Elaine Costigan, defected to Labour, in protest at Government cuts to particularly the school building programme.
Then Bill Archer, her father and Sandwell’s longest-serving councillor, left the party, and in the ensuing by-election his Wednesbury North seat fell with a massive swing to Labour. Costigan, who represents the same ward, will fight it this time for Labour, who, whatever this result, will continue to run the borough.
* In Solihull, by contrast, every seat – indeed, every vote – is vital. The Lib Dems and their coalition with Labour survived by just nine votes in January’s Olton by-election, but they too have suffered defections.
The Conservatives, already the largest party, need three seats for an overall majority, and will be eyeing Blythe, Elmdon, Silhill, and the Shirleys – and perhaps also hoping the Greens can improve on last year’s second places to Labour in Chelmsley Wood and Smiths Wood.
* Times change and recently Walsall has displaced Solihull as the Conservatives’ metropolitan stronghold. They have had majority control for seven years, but Labour’s aim now must be to end that majority and become again the largest party.
Pleck plus the two ever-marginal Bloxwiches would achieve the former. The latter requires almost everything in range, including Darlaston South from Independent, Blakenall from Democratic Labour. Not impossible, but a big ask.
* Wolverhampton, by contrast, needs the merest nudge. The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition lost its minimal majority in a July by-election defeat, stayed on with help from the Lib Dem Mayor’s casting vote, but finally in December had to hand over to a Labour minority administration after a Lib Dem councillor supported an opposition no confidence motion.
The two Wednesfords – Wolverhampton’s Bloxwiches – would give Labour an overall majority, and there are other wards similarly vulnerable.
WARWICKSHIRE, WORCESTERSHIRE and STAFFORDSHIRE
Traditionally Labour North Warwickshire (whole-council) became Conservative-controlled for the first time in 2007, but, with relatively small two and three member wards and no Lib Dem candidates at all, it could easily swing back.
In Warwick (whole-council) the Conservatives currently hold exactly half the seats and share power with the Independents. They could lose seats to Labour, in Warwick North and West for example, but also gain some from the Lib Dems.
*In Rugby (one-third) the Conservatives’ majority, gained in 2007, stands at eight. Labour made no advance last year, and again any Conservative losses could be offset by gains from the Lib Dems.
* Stratford-on-Avon (one third) comprises only a Conservative administration and Lib Dem opposition. The last Labour councillor departed in 2002, and no one’s expecting an imminent reappearance.
* Twelve years ago, Labour controlled Bromsgrove (whole council). Today the party has six councillors and the Conservatives a comfortable-looking 13-seat majority. Unlike in 2007, Labour has candidates in all wards, but, while there are several Conservative marginals, in few is Labour the chief challenger.
* Malvern Hills (whole council), just four years ago, was run by a LD/Green/Independent power-share. Then the Conservatives gained 14 Lib Dem seats and their first-ever overall majority. With multi-member wards and no Labour candidates, many of the Lib Dems’ losses would have seemed easily retrievable – until they joined a national coalition.
In fact, in four wards there are no challenging candidates at all, and the Conservative nominees are already elected, as are more than a quarter of Wychavon (whole council) councillors: 11 Conservatives and 1 Lib Dem. Whole-council elections are supposed to stimulate competition, but there are evidently exceptions.
* Redditch (one third) is a small, traditionally Labour council, run since 2008 by the Conservatives. With few Conservative marginals at stake, Labour’s return may be delayed.
* In January, the Conservatives’ minority control of Worcester (whole council) suddenly became a majority, following a Labour councillor’s defection in protest at the adoption of an all-women shortlist for the parliamentary seat. The majority could prove temporary, but Conservative rule looks set to continue.
* Wyre Forest (whole council), remarkably for a 42-member council with six separate political groups, has for three years now had a single-party (Conservative) majority administration. Any prediction, from an outsider, would be sheer folly.
* Staffordshire’s most significant election must be Stoke-on-Trent (whole council). Having decided by referendum to change their mayor/council manager experiment for a leader/cabinet system, voters are now electing a new, slimline council of 44, rather than the previous 60, members.
* Which leaves space for only the briefest mention of Cannock Chase (one third), surely the only council with a Wikipedia tabulation of its frequent councillor defections.
Even without their legal wrangle with Asda, the Lib Dem minority administration looked fragile, but with this council, you never know.