Two countries have synchronised their EU election and local election dates this cycle: Greece and parts of the UK (England and Northern Ireland).
On May 25, Greeks vote in run-off elections in all their 13 regions and 325 municipalities. England, though nearly five times as populous as Greece, also has 325 borough, district and unitary authorities. Fewer than half of us, however, will have the chance to elect either a whole council (32 London boroughs), a third of one (36 metropolitan boroughs, 82 unitaries and shire districts), or a half (7 shire districts) – oh yes, and five of our 14 elected mayors. We bemoan our embarrassingly low local election turnouts, but we don’t exactly make the system voter-friendly.
London will dominate the local results, not least because its councils with all-out elections are the more likely to change hands. They were last elected, like most of this year’s retiring councillors, on general election day in 2010. Labour’s parliamentary results were a car crash, but contesting council seats previously fought in 2006, one of the party’s worst-ever years, its local – and particularly its London election performance – was modestly encouraging. It took majority control in three previously Conservative boroughs (Ealing, Enfield and Harrow) and seven that were previously hung. It won more London seats than the Tories for the first time since 1998. The general election had boosted turnout, always an advantage for Labour, and the Conservatives’ national vote lead over Labour was down from 13% in 2006 to 7%.
This week’s opinion polls have the two parties neck-and-neck, with UKIP third, clearly ahead of the Liberal Democrats, though with some 2,300 fewer councillors. Labour, therefore, will be expecting most council and seat gains, while UKIP, with nearly 1,900 more candidates than in 2010, will win at least a few dozen seats but directly and unpredictably influence a great many more.
In London, Labour is targeting five outer London “battleground boroughs”. Harrow, Merton and Redbridge are already hung councils – and so proverbially low-hanging fruit. Croydon is a delicately balanced two-party state – our wildly disproportional electoral system “rewarding” 19% of Lib Dem voters in 2010 with precisely none of the 70 council seats – and a modest vote swing would give Labour control. But Barnet, the fifth borough on Labour’s list, seems a considerably tougher proposition, and definitely the one to watch.
Labour’s last London target is the Tower Hamlets mayoralty, held by the controversial Independent and Labour expellee, Lutfur Rahman. Opponents have accused him of everything from dubiously selling off and granting planning permission for the hotel conversion of the listed Poplar town hall to trying to buy his own re-election, but little of the mud really seems to stick and it may, if anything, boost his support. Panorama, however, couldn’t think of any more original way of making a programme on elected mayors and Eric Pickles, never one to miss out on a punch-up, is sending in his inspectors – though not to report back until well after the election.
Rahman’s Labour challenger, John Biggs, points out that the mayor won in 2010 in a low turnout election with the votes of only 13% of the electorate; he doesn’t mention that this was more than twice Labour’s vote share or that Rahman is one of the minority of mayors elected outright on first preference votes.
The Lib Dems’ two majority-controlled London boroughs will also be targeted, but by the Conservatives. Sutton they’ve held since 1990 and should do so again. In Kingston upon Thames, though, their majority now hangs on a single seat – and on the hope that UKIP takes Conservative votes in the right places.
Of the 36 metropolitan boroughs, Labour already controls 29. Of the two Conservative councils, Trafford looks the more vulnerable. Having reduced the Tories’ majority to three in a recent by-election, Labour will hope to win it for the first time since 2003. The Solihull Conservatives, who have 28 councillors, look securer – partly because their principal challengers, the Lib Dems (now nine), have been defecting to the Greens (now seven), who will be seeking to supplant them as the official opposition.
The West Yorkshire trio of Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees have all been hung since at least 2000, but this could be about to change. In Bradford, Labour’s 2012 hopes of turning its minority control into a majority were thwarted by the coat-tails effect of George Galloway’s parliamentary by-election victory for Respect. The coat-tail councillors are all now Independents, and Labour should make it this time. Kirklees and Calderdale travel in parallel. Five years ago, both boroughs were run by Conservative minorities, which were replaced by Labour-Lib Dem coalitions, which were succeeded in turn by Labour minority administrations. Arithmetically Kirklees looks the more attainable for Labour.
In Stockport, the Lib Dems now have only minority control of what has been their metropolitan flagship and are defending 12 of their 29 seats. Labour is the leading opposition, but, having finished second in only two of them in 2010, its gains may be limited. Its chances should be better in Walsall, where it is already the largest party, although in opposition to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Overall, if Labour won the same wards as in the last elections in 2012, but without this time losing a couple of others to independents, it could gain majority control for the first time this century.
As I’ve noted, there are two sets of elections taking place this Thursday: for the European Parliament, for many of our local councils, and, although a visitor could be forgiven for imagining otherwise, none at all for the House of Commons, our national party leaders or their national manifestos.
Of all those elections, happening and not happening, those most continuously and extensively affecting our daily lives are undoubtedly the locals, which will see not only the turnover of hundreds of councillors, but changes in the control of many of what are some of the largest councils in Europe. It’s in these town halls and civic centres on Friday and the coming weeks that the real impact of these elections will be apparent, as policies change, budgeted cuts are reversed, planned projects are shelved and others are initiated.
By contrast, nothing whatever of comparable import will change in the Palace of Westminster as a result of Thursday’s voting. This preview, though limited by space to only a minority of our largest councils, has suggested that the overall “winners” of these elections, in terms of net councils and seats gained, will be Labour – the significance of which in 350 days’ time will be close to zero.