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Coalition tensions to play out in local elections
Public Finance – 19 April 2011

The local elections in England on May 5 will inevitably reflect voters' views on national issues and the performance of the government, by Mark Smulian

It's all in the timing. One year after the coalition government was formed, the turn of the electoral cycle means that on May 5 it faces its largest test short of a general election.

There will be voting for almost every council in England outside London as well as for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, both the Assembly and local councils in Northern Ireland and the UK referendum on electoral reform.

While local politicians like to claim that England's elections should concern local issues, all parties will pore over the results to see who is up and down as the country becomes familiar with the novelty of coalition government. When these seats were last contested four years ago, Labour was in the doldrums with Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown in near-open warfare. The party suffered the indignity of falling behind the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives won more than half the seats contested.

This time, Labour has its tail up. It disliked being evicted from previous strongholds such as Newcastle and Sheffield by the LibDems and sees the coalition's unpopularity as an opportunity for revenge, not to mention its best chance in years to re-establish itself in swathes of the South.

When past Tory governments were unpopular, southern voters turned to the LibDems, but Labour reasons that the coalition makes this a less attractive option.

So do others. The Green Party will hope to pick up some disgruntled LibDem voters and the UK Independence Party to do the same among former Tories.

There is also the unpredictable effect of localist parties. These gained control of Boston Borough Council and West Somerset Council in 2007, and a range of groups such as Tendring First, the Canvey Island Independent Party and South Ribble's eccentrically named Idle Toad will hope to profit at the expense of the coalition parties.

David Sparks, leader of Labour's Local Government Association group, tells Public Finance that the LibDems' decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives 'will hit them in those towns and cities that have been particularly hard hit by the Tory-led government's cuts'.

He predicts that LibDems in the North of England are likely to record the highest losses. But Sparks declines to predict exactly where - 'for the same reason that I do not back horses'. He points out that 'in many areas, there is multi-party politics, which is far less predictable than in the past'.

His LGA LibDem counterpart, Richard Kemp, is indeed expecting a tough fight in the North and predicts 'a strong defensive campaign' by his party.

'We are defending a lot of seats that are at risk,' Kemp says. 'There are two battlegrounds, against Labour in the urban North and against the Tories in the South, and we have been having good by-election results against the Tories. Urban areas will be difficult, but I think these will be the worst set of elections for us in this Parliament.'

Sparks hopes to intervene in the usual Tory/LibDem battle in the South, but concedes that this will be tough. 'It is critical for the future of the party that we work to regain a foothold in the South,' he says.

Robert Gordon, chair of the Conservative Councillors' Association, admits that his party is unlikely to fare well in northern cities, from which it has largely vanished, apart from Leeds.

He tells PF: 'These elections will not be easy for us, as 2007 was a very good year. While we would like a presence in the northern cities, if we can defend the gains we made in 2007 it will be a very good result.'

Gordon thinks the coalition's existence will blunt Tory losses to the LibDems, so improving his party's prospects.

'I would have thought that where Labour is in second place they will do quite well, but in places where Labour hardly exists we may hold seats and maybe make some progress,' he says.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, expects voter shifts in these local elections to be unusually complex. 'Clearly, given that the Labour party is up on where it was four years ago and the LibDems down, you would expect them to be in trouble and losing seats to Labour,' he says.

'But what makes this round of elections fascinating is whether the coalition means Conservatives will vote tactically for the LibDems in those areas. If I were a LibDem candidate in a middle-class area in a northern city I would be attempting a major squeeze on the Conservative vote to try to counter the loss of votes to Labour.'

Curtice believes the Conservatives could, perversely, be the main beneficiaries of Labour's push in the South. 'In places where the LibDems face the Tories, both parties are down in the polls, but the Tories not by quite as much, so another intriguing question is what will happen if Labour starts fighting places it has not fought before,' Curtice wonders.

'There is no great chance of Labour taking many of those seats, but they could take enough votes to allow the Tories to take seats from the LibDems.' He adds that, over the past decade, Labour has been wiped out in much of the South and is coming from a long way behind. 'If people in those areas want to vote against the government, we could see the rise of Greens, independents and local groups.'

Ian Briggs, senior fellow at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Local Government Studies, agrees that Labour may help the Tories in southern England.

'In the South, the Tory campaign plan is to attack the LibDems,' he says. 'They think they can improve their own position at [the LibDems'] expense, while Labour will not really get anywhere.'

The polls will, of course, coincide with the referendum on the voting system, which introduces further unpredictability.

'We don't know the effects of the AV referendum, but there is a lot of official information going out about it, so it might increase turnout,' Briggs says. The Conservatives have traditionally been better at getting their votes out than Labour, so if there is an increased turnout it could benefit Labour.'

The overwhelming blue of England's local government map is set to change, but by how much- and to what?