Local elections: the councils Labour should watch

18th April, 2012 10:49 am

Last night, YouGov announced that Labour now has an 11point lead in the polls. This is the largest lead in a long while. Putting aside the London Mayoral election, where Ken has had a rough couple of weeks, this polling would suggest that Labour is in a strong position heading into the local elections on May 3rd.

With 180 councils across the country up for elections, there is a lot to play for – and these are important elections. Important because for much of the electorate, local elections are an opportunity to express their feelings on how the government, and opposition, are performing nationally. Most recently we saw Labour lose Bradford West in an unexpected result – showing that the public are not afraid of voting with their feet to get their message across.

But it would be remiss to think that local elections are only a reflection of what is happening nationally. They are not. They are very much about local issues and local candidates – and some of seats in the forthcoming elections are highly contested. It is easy to see why; following nearly two years of cuts imposed by central government on local government, citizens locally are now really starting to see, and feel, the squeeze in local service provision. They will want their voices to be heard at the ballot box.

Where does this leave Labour? The last time that these 5000 seats were contested was 2008 – the year of big gains for the Conservatives. In this year, the Tories had a 12% swing and gained more than 250 seats – the majority from Labour. In this same year, Labour lost over 300 seats locally. But this time around things are very different. Labour has a lead in the polls and if this lead translates at the ballot box, there will be a swing to Labour, and around 300 seats could be gained.

With this in mind, which councils should Labour be watching* come May 3rd? Where is Labour likely to make gains; in which councils could Labour take control; and are there any councils where Labour could lose out? Here is a prediction of the top councils** that Labour should watch on election night:

English Unitary Councils

Derby: The Bombardier decision was extremely important to Derby’s future; by awarding the £1 billion Crossrail contract to a German firm, the government could feel this at the ballot box. Ed Miliband described the decision as a betrayal of the people of Derby, and he urged voters to make their feelings known in the local elections. Labour is the largest party in Derby, with 22 seats. However, the council is currently run by a Conservative (16 seats) / Lib Dem (12 seats) coalition. To gain control Labour need to pick up 4 seats of the third that are up for election.

North East Lincolnshire: Labour currently holds a minority administration with 19 seats. The Conservatives (14 seats) and Lib Dems (9 seats) could have taken control of the council if they had decided to form a coalition – but they did not. There are only 12 seats up for election in May, which are evenly split – 4 each for the three main parties. This should give Labour a chance to gain the three seats they need to take control; if they can get voters out on the day. However, it is very close and should it swing the other way, the Tories/Lib Dems could decide to form that coalition after all.

Plymouth: Labour currently holds 25 seats in Plymouth, and will need to take some of the 32 Tory seats to win council control. This is a two way fight, and given that the parliamentary seats are also divided in the city, with one to Labour and two to the Tories (Plymouth, Moor View Constituency: Alison Seabeck; Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport: Oliver Colvile; South West Devon Constituency, Gary Streeter), the election results are likely to be very close.

Reading: Labour took minority control of the council after the local elections in 2011, replacing the Tory/Lib Dem coalition. This time around, with 16 seats up for election, Labour will want to take the 4 seats they need to have a majority. However, the Greens are also targeting gains so Labour will want to ensure they get promises out on the day to win these 4 additional seats.

Southampton: Labour holds 19 seats, with the Tories on 26, so the local Labour group has a tough job ahead in Southampton if they are to take control from the current Conservative administration – particularly given that only a third of the seats are up for election. However, it is do-able; just 6 seats are needed for Labour to take control, and the on-going battle between the Council Leader and local unions over pay cuts could help swing things for Labour.

Thurrock: It is going to be a very close battle in Thurrock between the Labour group who currently holds 24 seats and lead the council with no overall control; and the Conservatives, who have 22 seats. As one of Labour’s key parliamentary targets seats – PPC Polly Billington is fighting it – retaining control of the council is vital to boost chances at the next general election.

Metropolitan Authorities

Birmingham: Birmingham is very important for Labour. As the largest local authority in the country, this could be a key area for the Party to build a power base in the run up to the next general election. It is currently a coalition government between the Conservatives, with 39 seats, the 24 Lib Dems and 1 other. Labour have 56 seats – the largest party by a clear margin, and therefore should be expected to build on the gains made at the last election and win control of the council.

Birmingham is also important as there is a referendum taking place on whether to have an elected mayor and is predicted as one of the cities that is expected to return a ‘yes’ vote. A number of high profile Labour figures have already thrown their hats into the ring for candidacy, which would make for an exciting selection process and mayoral race in November (election to be held on the same day as the election for the Police Commissioners).

Bradford: A third of the Bradford seats are up for election in May and after the shock result in the Bradford West parliamentary by-election and news that Respect intends to field 12 candidates in the local election, Labour in Bradford should be concerned. Labour currently holds 44 of the seats with the Conservatives on 27 seats – it is possible that if Respect take the 12 seats where they are fielding candidates, Labour could lose their majority.

Liverpool: In a bold move, the Labour administration in Liverpool decided to bypass the local referendum and go straight to the vote for an elected mayor. Labour’s candidate, Joe Anderson who has been campaigning hard on schools, jobs, new homes and enterprise is well placed to take the mayoralty and is favourite to win. This should follow the collapse of the Lib Dems vote in the city, where they currently only hold 22 seats, compared with Labour’s 62.

Rochdale: Labour holds the council as a minority administration with 32 seats. The Conservatives have 18 seats and the Lib Dems have 10. Labour will need to gain 2 seats to take an outright majority. Like many Labour councils though, Rochdale have been forced to make significant budgetary savings and residents will be feeling the pinch, which could have an impact on polling day.

Walsall: Seats in Walsall will be hotly contested, as Labour and the Conservatives both currently hold 27 council seats each. The Conservatives run the council with the support of the 5 Lib Dems and an Independent councillor. This is Labour territory with Walsall South and North both being Labour held parliamentary seats, yet we know that the Midlands is a major battleground, so the local Labour group will be hoping for a swing back in their favour on May 3rd.

Wirral: The situation in Wirral has been difficult for some time. It has gone from a Labour/Lib Dem coalition in 2008, to a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition following the 2010 election and then back to a Labour minority following the election in 2011. Although Labour have the most seats (30), earlier this year however, the Conservatives (27 seats) and Lib Dems (9 seats) teamed up again to take control of the council, ousting Steve Foulkes in the process. This election is very unpredictable, although Labour will be hoping for gains to take back council control – but this time with a majority.

District Councils

Burnley: The Lib Dems reign here with a minority administration of 21 councillors. Labour are currently on 18 councillors, the Conservatives have 5 and the BNP 1. This is a key Labour / Lib Dem battleground and Labour will be hoping to win enough seats, either to run as a majority or minority administration.

Cannock Chase: Labour holds the council with a minority administration and 16 seats. The Conservatives are not far behind however, with 13 seats and the Lib Dems have 9. Labour will be trying to gain outright control here, but it will be closely fought.

Rossendale: Labour currently have a minority administration with 17 seats. The Conservatives have 16 seats, the Lib Dems 2 and Community First 1. While Labour will be hoping to win a majority the numbers are very tight and it potentially could swing to a Tory administration if Labour can’t get the vote out on the day.


Scottish local government uses a PR system for local elections which leaves most councils hung.

Glasgow: Labour has dominated Glasgow for some time, but this is now under threat, with the SNP expected to make significant gains. This is likely to be the most watched contest of the night in Scotland.

North Lanarkshire Labour currently controls the council with 39 seats. The SNP have 20 seats, so depending on the scale of the SNP gains that are expected, a change in administration could be possible.

South Lanarkshire: The situation is much closer in South Lanarkshire, with the Scottish Labour Party in control with 32 seats, and the SNP closely behind with 24. A significant swing to the SNP could enable them to take control of the council.


Caerphilly: It is a very close race in Caerphilly, with Plaid currently controlling a minority / Independent administration. Plaid currently hold 32 seats and Labour 29; in this two-way fight, Labour will be hoping to make enough gains to take control of the council.

Cardiff: Currently a Lib Dem (35 seats) / Plaid coalition; the Lib Dems are braced for losses, and Labour (14 seats) are currently doing well in Wales. It is a long shot, but if Labour do exceptionally well on the night, they could take the council.

Newport: Although they remain the largest group with 21 seats, Labour lost control of the council in 2008 to a Conservative (17 seats) / Lib Dem (9 seats) coalition. Newport is a traditionally a Labour area and there is every chance that if they make enough gains, they could take control back.

*Information based on post originally made by LGiU: Top 50 Councils to Watch

**Every effort has been made to ensure that this information is accurate. If not, please tweet me @laurawilkes and I’ll amend. Similarly, if you think that any councils are missing from this list, please let me have additional suggestions.

Laura Wilkes is a Policy Manager at Local Government Information Unit. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Value our free and unique service?

LabourList has more readers than ever before - but we need your support. Our dedicated coverage of Labour's policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections relies on donations from our readers.

If you can support LabourList’s unique and free service then please click here.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends