The cause of their concern? This year’s round of local elections. On May 4 much of England and all of Scotland and Wales go to the polls. Normally, whoever is in power at Westminster takes a beating in these town hall contests. Yet there is little sign that the Conservatives will suffer such a fate this year. Instead, it is Labour and Ukip who appear most at risk of losing ground.
In England the principal focus of attention is on elections for 33 county councils (including half a dozen that also double up as district councils, and not only run schools and social care but also empty the bins and decide local planning applications). These councils are predominantly in shire England outside of the big cities, and thus are in the heartland of Conservatism.
Even though the Conservatives were in power when these county councils were last fought in 2013, the party still managed to win 1,100 or not far short of half all the 2,300 seats at stake. Labour, in contrast, won just over 500 and overall control of just three councils, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Durham.
This imbalance, though, was not the most remarkable feature of the results. Rather it was the success of Ukip. The party astounded everyone by winning a fifth of all votes cast, even though it only fought three-quarters of the wards up for grabs.
That is why this year’s local elections are potentially so difficult for Paul Nuttall. His party is defending a high watermark that it has never managed to emulate in any set of local elections since. As a result, even though the party is seemingly still hanging on to most of the 13 per cent of the vote that it won in the 2015 general election, it could still lose most of the 130 seats it will be trying to defend.
High watermarks are not, however, Labour’s problem. Its 2013 local election performance was distinctly modest – the party was almost outpolled by Ukip. Yet at least it stood in the national opinion polls at the time at an average of 39 per cent. Now it stands at just per cent. Conversely, the Conservatives are currently on 42 per cent, up 11 points on the position four years ago, and potentially enough to give Theresa May an overall majority of 80 if there were to be an early general election.
The swing against Labour since four years ago is unlikely to be as big in the local ballot boxes as it is in the national polls – Labour as well as the Conservatives should profit from the anticipated collapse in the Ukip vote, while Labour’s vote is already so low in much of shire England that it does not have 12 per cent left to lose. Nevertheless, in the handful of comparable county council by-elections held since the Brexit referendum, there has on average been a two-point swing from Labour to Conservative. Even a swing as low as that could be enough to cost the party its control of Nottinghamshire.
However, the most eye-catching contests in England are not the county council elections, but rather those for six new posts – directly-elected ‘city region’ Mayors, an innovation on which George Osborne insisted as Chancellor in return for handing out cash and powers to combinations of (often Labour) local councils that cover some of the country’s larger provincial cities and the surrounding hinterland. Labour MPs, Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham, should succeed in their attempts to be elected in Liverpool City and Greater Manchester respectively. Labour are also favourites in Tees Valley, although the Conservatives are expected to take Cambridgeshire together with the West of England region centred on Bristol.
However, the position is far from clear in the West Midlands where Labour MEP Siôn Simon is being challenged for the Conservatives by former John Lewis CEO, Andy Street. Although Labour was nine points ahead across the region in the 2015 general election, the latest national polls imply there has been a four-point swing from Labour to Conservative since then. If that swing was to be replicated in the West Midlands mayoral contest, the outcome would be left on a knife-edge, settled perhaps by the second preferences that the supporters of the smaller parties – most notably UKIP – are able to cast under the Supplementary Vote system being used to elect the new posts. Defeat for Mr Simon would be a decidedly difficult result indeed for Jeremy Corbyn.
While England’s county councils are for the most part relatively barren territory for Labour at the best of times, the same cannot be said for Wales. When the seats up for grabs there were (mostly) last contested Siôn in 2012 Labour was on a high. It stood at nearly 50 per cent in the Welsh polls and enjoyed a nine-point increase in support in the local elections. As a result, the party will be defending as many seats in Wales (more than 550) as it will in the whole of England.
But, like elsewhere, Labour is no longer on a high in Wales. The most recent Welsh poll credits the party with just a third of the vote, well down on the 50 per cent it enjoyed five years ago. Both Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives could well profit from Labour’s misfortune. Less than a three-point swing to the Conservatives is all that would be needed to deprive Labour of the biggest prize of all, its overall control of Cardiff.
However, Labour’s prospects look worst of all in Scotland. By the standards of other elections north of the border, the party performed relatively well in the last local elections five years ago. The party won 31 per cent of the Scotland-wide vote, just a point less than the SNP. Despite the use of a proportional representation system, the party retained control of Glasgow as well as three other councils.
But since then the party’s vote has collapsed in the wake of an independence referendum that saw one in three of its former supporters back leaving the UK and switching to the SNP, and, more recently, a Conservative revival rooted in a more robust defence of the Union than Labour has felt able to muster. Scottish polls put support for the party these days at just 15 per cent, while its vote has fallen on average by 10 points in local by-elections held during the last 12 months.
As a result, there seems little chance of the party retaining control of Glasgow or, indeed, of anywhere else. Not only could it be well behind the SNP, who hope to add dominance of Scottish local government to their existing grip of the Edinburgh parliament and of Scottish representation at Westminster, but also the Conservatives. And without Scotland, Labour’s chances of winning another overall majority in the Commons will remain remote even if the party was to turn the corner in England and Wales.
But what of the Liberal Democrats? Local government elections used to be their forte, until many of the party’s supporters took a dim view of their performance in the 2010-15 Coalition. North of the border the party looks as though it will struggle to add much to the dismal tally of 71 seats it won in 2012. Neither the polls in Scotland nor recent local by-elections give much reason to anticipate a revival of the party’s fortunes there.
But in England, and perhaps too in Wales, the position could well be different. Although to date there has been no more than a modest two-point recovery in the party’s position in the opinion polls as compared with the 2015 election, since last summer it has scored some spectacular successes in local by-elections, on average enjoying as much as a 14-point increase in support. The record has been patchy; in some instances the party has come from nowhere to claim a seat, while elsewhere it has done no more than tread water.
If next month the Liberal Democrats succeed in repeating some of their more spectacular by-election advances, that might enable the party to begin to rebuild the local government base that five years of coalition managed to destroy. And any sign that its potential competitor on the centre left of British politics is finally enjoying something of a revival could be the worst news of all for Jeremy Corbyn.
John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University