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.

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  • Member

    NE Lincs is now 20/14/8

  • Reading is now Labour 22, Conservative 14 (following defection of 2 councillors to independents – one of whom is up for election this year), Libdem 6 (was 5 but a previously suspended cllr has now come back to them), Green 2.  Labour need a gain of 2 to take overall control.

  • Nice bit of spin, if you repeat the line of only expecting 300 gains some of your more naive members may believe it.

    • Brumanuensis

      Of course. Why bother with realistic predictions and well-grounded projections, when you can have magical Lib Dem electoral math instead. So how many seats should we expect to gain then? 3 bajillion or merely a lowly bazillion?   

  • John Ruddy

    How about Fife? The SNP/Lib Dem adminsitration has been cutting services and charging users since 2007, and a strong Labour performance there could see Labour returning to power.

  • OK, That’s sort of a bit different from the Polls in The Parish of Northern Britain (Soon to be The Independent Nation of Scotland)(Prop. A.Salmond), which tells the following story

    Populus – SNP 43% Lab 25% Con 15% LD 9% GRN 0%
    YouGov – SNP 46% Lab 28% Con 11% LD 8% GRN 1%

    Laura’s Spin as “Scottish local government uses a PR system for local elections which leaves most councils hung” does not hide the fact that on these figures, “Scottish” Labour under their New “Scottish” Leader Johann Lamont are in for another serious beating.

    It doesn’t hide the fact that the days of the self-perpetuating kakistocratic hegemony of Labour in the West of Scotland are over, and that in an almost predictable repetition of 2011, we have Nothing Positive on the doorsteps.

    Lamont admitted today on “Call Kaye” on BBC Radio Scotland at 9am that she stood by her earlier comments that “Scottish” Labour expect the Scottish National Party to “get more councillors this time”. Last Time, the SNP took 363 to “Scottish” Labour’s 348.

    So, already, we see the spin: Manage party, public and
    media interpretations of the likely result by playing down its
    significance, by using psephological analyses of each elections candidates
    lists by tame BBC Northern Britain Pundits like John Curtice.

    If they hold on to any one of the remaining One-Party States, it will be trumpeted as a wonderful victory and a vindication.

    Note: Labour in Scotland lost every constituency that Ed Milibrand visited during the Scottish General Election Campaign of 2011. Ed, will ye PLEASE come back again for The Council Elections

    • Brumanuensis

      We had a general election in 2011? I must have missed that. How remiss of me.

      Could you give us a link to your polls btw? I’m not saying they’re wrong, I’d just like to see the break-down.

      • Well, I’d like to but I seem to be being moderated now. Sorry. If my post gets past moderation then the infor is all there. Otherwise, easily googleable.

        Now, which Labour Leadership contenter was it who wanted legislation about scanning e-mails and the interweb more draconian than the Tories are proposing again ? Andy Birnham ?

        • Brumanuensis

          I’ve tried googling it, but I can’t find the figures quoted in your original post. I’ve tried looking on Populus for local election polls, but I can’t seem to find it there either.

          It may have been Burnham, yes.

          • Go straight to the sites of both. You’ll have to hack through a few tables on Populus and spend five mins with the calculator taking out the Dont Know/Refuses and on Yougov translating the “regional breakdown”. Try Angus Reid as well – pretty clear.

            Figures are Wastemonster voting intentions, polled over the last 5 days. Regardless of “local” elections, these generally reflect how the vote will go.

            I could be flippant and say that it’s not the figures that are important. The only poll etc.

            What is clear however is that Labour in Scotland has not closed the gap opened by the SNP in the 2011 Scottish GE.

          • Brumanuensis

            Oh I see. A bit like this article. http://www.snp-falkirk.org/new/2012/04/17/snp-welcome-opinion-poll-boost-ahead-of-local-elections/

            Particularly these lines: “The analysis of the Scottish samples of three polls published today has shown Westminster voting intentions at 45 per cent for the SNP – 16 points ahead of Labour on 29%”.

            I’m very sceptical about this approach. It relies on a sub-sample of much larger poll and therefore has a significant margin of error and shouldn’t really be used as a sign of Scottish voter intent. YouGov does a Scotland-only opinion poll for this very reason. The most recent one was published on the 8th March 2012, with the following figures:

            Westminster voting intention: CON 17%(+1), LAB 42%(+7), LDEM 7%(nc), SNP 30%(-7)
            Holyrood constituency: CON 12%(-1), LAB 36%(+4), LDEM 8%(+1), SNP 40%(-4)
            Holyrood regional: CON 13%(nc), LAB 32%(+1), LDEM 7%(nc), SNP 38%(-1)


            The next one should be out in May, possibly around polling day. Of course, the rapid shift towards the SNP seen in 2011 could be repeated, but I sense Johann Lamont is doing a better job than Iain ‘I’ll just go and hide in this newsagents’ Gray. Wouldn’t be surprised if Glasgow and North Lanarkshire go SNP though.


      • @aa3ec421c087e227fe02f72e9076d190:disqus There’s nothing wrong with calling it a general election.  That’s what it is officially known as:


      • Ewen is referring to the Scottish parliament elections in 2011

  • Brumanuensis

    Not sure about the mayoral prediction in Birmingham. My impression is that most people are apathetic and those that aren’t tend to be slightly negative. Don’t confuse the views of political big-wigs with the public’s.    

    • ThePurpleBooker

      I think Labour can be very confident in taking it back.

      • Brumanuensis

        Oh that I’m sure of – fingers crossed, no jinxing, etc. The mayoral referendum though, I’m less inclined to say ‘yes’.

  • Great article. Can I ask though, is a 300 seat Labour gain a conservative estimate? Labour sources (Tom Watson, Luke Akehurst) have generally been saying 300-600, but a couple of academics (can’t remember the names) predicted 700 and Warsi & the Tories have been spinning a Labour gain of 700-900. My fear is what happens if the press internalise the higher-end estimates, irregardless of whether they’re valid, especially if they then combine that with Glasgow and the London mayoral.

    • Brumanuensis

      700 is what you’d expect if the national opinion polls were precisely translated into council seat gains. 300 is the lower-end of expectations, in other words, what we expect to win come-what-may, so anything less is a catastrophe. 600 is the upper-end, so at that mark the results go from ‘satisfying’ to ‘good’. 600+ is when things start becoming excellent, assuming no repeat of the disaster in Scotland last year.

  • Redshift

    Chorley? Tough ask but certainly possible

    • Redshift

      Sefton? Currently minority Labour control with 28 seats, against 23 Lib Dems, 10 Tories, 4 Conservative Independents and 1 UKIP. So we need 6 gains for a majority.

      • Let’s hope we do it….


        • Dakotadogsbody

          I voted Labour in Sefton for the first time in 12 years. Old Labour, of course. However my ward will be a LibDem/Tory/ex-Tory punch up. My vote had nothing to do with the local scene – just a protest against Cameron and Clegg.

  • Liamjlhill

    19 Labour
    11 Tory
    9 LD
    1 Liberal
    One seat and we have a majority.

  • Just thought I’d use this opportunity to mention one more result Labour can watch with pride in Warwickshire- we’re having a good run in Nuneaton and Bedworth- currently got 17 of 34 seats and we’re on course to get a majority if we gain our target seats. This will mean, along with North Warwickshire, that Labour will be in control of both authorities, and both seats are in the top 50 targets for parliamentary elections in 2015 before the changing boundaries. I hope someone remembers to mention us on the television- before 2008, N&B was Labour for 34 years, and now this some hard work, we might be back

  • Richie

    I note the cyber nats have chosen to haunt this thread. It’s really not a shocking prediction to say the SNP will have more Cllrs and make gains in May. In fact, stating anything else would be highly suspect. 

    Anyway, we’ll see about separation. I see they don’t quote the polls showing a majority in favour of the UK. 

  • Rdrberry

    Sorry to be awkward but Bradford is Labour led, one short of a majority so we have worked alongside the Greens.Tories have lost two defectors one of whom looks on to win his seat. A number of the Respect seats being targetted are Tory of Lib Dem.There are complexities and in the light of the by election we have a number of 3/4 way fights .

  • Anthony T

    “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.”

    By “bold” you mean they’ve ignored the will of the electorate who could have petitioned for a move to a mayoral system at any time since the 2000 Act if there was any great enthusiasm for the idea.

    • Brumanuensis

      Elected councils make decisions. Shock horror.

      • ThePurpleBooker

        A very good decision too. YES TO MAYORS.

        • Brumanuensis

          Well we disagree on that point, but if the council has the power and holds a vote, fair play to them.

        • Graeme Clark69

          I live in North Tyneside and the Elected Mayor (Conservative) created a budget that was rejected by 41 of the 60 members who subsequently submitted their own which included removing the Chief Exec and many of the directors on huge salaries.  She ignored it and simply pushed ahead with hers which includes privatisation of most services.  The mayoral system leaves the elected councillors as back benchers with no voice.  If you get the opportunity please vote against it.

  • I’m surprised aberdeen isn’t mentioned here. 

  • ThePurpleBooker

    Crawley has been forgotten. Labour needs to take six council seats to get a majority, even though we aren’t the largest party.
    I think Harlow is up for selection. It is very possible we will take it.

  • The battle for Glasgow is getting all the attention, but there’s a  just as interesting race going on in Edinburgh. All four main parties are fairly close together (LD 16, Lab 15, SNP 13, Con 11, and Green 3), with the council under LD-SNP control.  Labour (along with the Lib Dems and Cons) got absolutely hammered by the SNP in the Holyrood elections last year, with the SNP going from notionally 0 seats (Kenny MacAskill’s seat was notionally Laaour), to winning all but one seat.  Will be interesting to see whether the SNP can repeat that feat despite being unpopular incumbents. The Labour group have an excellent year – sinking the LD-SNP coalition’s plans for council service privatisation – and deserve not to suffer the same fate.

  • hardworkingfamilymember

    I’ve always voted Labour, I want to vote Labour but just been to my local polling station and there were only two candidates on the paper; conservative or liberal. Couldn’t bring myself to vote for either of them so posted my blank ballot paper. Feel short changed that I don’t have the opportunity to vote for my preferred party — my MP is David Cameron!

    • treborc1

      MY area is basically independent with a coalition with labour or with Plaid and it’s been like this for a long time now, I suspect it will be independent again with either labour or Plaid making up the coalition partner

  • I have a slightly different list, with declaration times. But this is good too!



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