How well does Labour need to do in the local elections?

As in previous years, here is my guide to to what constitutes success for Labour on 2nd May.

To try to see through the spin and expectations management it’s important to look at the previous results for these sets of elections and compare with them.

I would repeat my usual plea: ignore the change in the other parties’ standing as they may not all have direct implications for Labour. Churn in seats between Lib Dems and Tories is not hugely relevant to us, what we should really be interested in is the direction of travel for Labour.

Compared to last year there are very few councils and councillors up for election: just over 2,000 councillors in 36 councils, compared to over 3,500 in 184 councils in 2012.

Elections will be held in 35 English councils, including all 27 shire county councils, the five unitary authorities covering ceremonial counties, three other unitary authorities, and a single Welsh unitary authority (Anglesey, where elections due in 2012 were postponed to allow for re-warding). These elections last took place on the 4 June 2009 at the same time as the 2009 European Parliament Elections. Those 2009 polls saw Labour’s worst performance in living memory. The previous three rounds of county elections were held on the same polling days as the 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Elections, so turnout was inflated.

The control of the councils up for election is as follows:

Council Controlling Party Number of Labour Seats
Anglesey NOC 5
Bristol NOC 22 (only 1/3 of seats up for election)
Buckinghamshire Con 0
Cambridgeshire Con 3
Cornwall NOC 1
Cumbria NOC 25
Derbyshire Con 23
Devon Con 6
Dorset Con 1
Durham Lab 68
East Sussex Con 4
Essex Con 2
Gloucestershire Con 5
Hampshire Con 1
Hertfordshire Con 3
Isle of Wight Con 1
Isles of Scilly Ind 0
Kent Con 3
Lancashire Con 17
Leicestershire Con 4
Lincolnshire Con 5
Norfolk Con 5
North Yorkshire Con 1
Northamptonshire Con 6
Northumberland NOC 17
Nottinghamshire Con 16
Oxfordshire Con 9
Shropshire Con 7
Somerset Con 2
Staffordshire Con 3
Suffolk Con 4
Surrey Con 1
Warwickshire Con 11
West Sussex Con 2
Wiltshire Con 2
Worcestershire Con 3

There are also elections for the Directly Elected Mayors of Doncaster (currently an Independent but elected as an English Democrat), and North Tyneside (currently a Tory).

Labour’s weak starting point in these authorities is apparent from the list above.

In almost all the counties, it is important to note that boundary changes in the 1990s removed the most Labour voting urban areas and gave them unitary authorities. So Nottinghamshire excludes Nottingham, Leicestershire excludes Leicester, Kent excludes the Medway Towns, Hampshire excludes Southampton and Portsmouth, Staffordshire excludes Stoke-on-Trent etc.

We are defending just 178 seats, the Tories are defending 1531 and the Lib Dems are defending 484.

There are at least four ways of measuring Labour’s national performance: national vote share, raw number of councillors, number of councillors gained and number of councils controlled.

Looking first at national vote share, the estimated figures the BBC calculated in 2009 were Con 35%, Lab 25%, LD 22%. The BBC vote share figures will factor in an estimate for the more urban areas that don’t have elections this year, so our objectives ought to be to equal or exceed the 37% we got in 2011 and to get a higher vote share than the Tories.

Raw number of councillors is the national (GB) total figure including all the thousands of councillors not up for election:

1993 –  9213
1997 – 10608
2001 –  8487
2005 –  6518
2009 –  4436

Last year saw us reach a total of 6559 councillors.

300 gains would be a very stretching target given how few seats are up for election compared to last year (this year almost all the seats are county council divisions many times larger than a district council ward) and would take us back to near our 2004 total. This would involve us gaining back all the seats we lost in 2009. You have to go back to 1993 to find a year with county council elections where Labour made net gains – 111 that year, we lost seats in each of 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2009. I think 200 gains is a more reasonable benchmark than 300. Even 178 gains would be impressive as it would involve more than doubling the number of seats we win.

Control of councils is an indicator unlikely to show many net Labour gains as we start with such small Labour groups in most counties, and with no history of control since the 1990s boundary changes, that very few are in our sights. We might gain Cumbria and Northumberland from NOC but both contain solidly Tory and Lib Dem rural areas, and we haven’t won overall control of Cumbria since 1997. From the Tories, our best chance is to gain back some of the four counties we lost in 2009: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. Staffordshire looks a real longshot as the Labour Group was almost wiped out. After these it is about taking councils from the Tory column to NOC, with Warwickshire, a council that was hung from 1993 to 2009, the best hope. All these areas include battlefield seats for the next General Election.

The number of councils Labour has controlled has been as follows:

2002 – 136 (this was the last year in which we controlled more than the Tories)
2003 – 103
2004 – 94
2005 – 92
2006 – 75
2007 – 58
2008 – 46
2009 – 37
2010 – 54
2011 – 81
2012 – 114

As the Tories currently still control 190 councils, it will be perhaps 2015 before Labour can hope to control more authorities than them.

The location of councils and seats gained is important too: look out for gains in seats covering areas in parliamentary seats that are in Labour’s list of 106 General Election targets. For instance we ought to be picking up county divisions in places like Crawley, Dover, Harlow and Ipswich, even though the control of the counties those towns are in won’t be at stake. Where we gain councillors in a target parliamentary seat it strengthens our local campaign machine for 2015 and weakens the Tory or Lib Dem one, as incumbent councillors play a critical role in leading local campaigning.

As in previous years, one final indicator won’t appear in the media headlines but is worth looking through the detailed results for: the Labour seat gains in councils where we have been reduced to a handful of councillors or none at all. These will be a good indication of whether Labour is truly back on the map as a One Nation party with nationwide appeal. For instance, we may well move from having virtually no county councillors in Kent to having a sizable Labour Group of 15-20.

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