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Wednesday, April 29, 1998 Published at 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK

Briefing - 1998 Local Elections

Bill Bush, Head of BBC Political Research.

The General Election was on local election day in 1997 so the locals on May 7 are, to the week, an anniversary test for each of the parties. There are plenty of local and regional stories, but for many the most interesting question to be answered is, one year on, how do voters see the three main British parties?

Brave new world

It seems inevitably the case that local elections are opportunities for voters to pass judgement on the Government of the day, or occasionally on oppositions if they are behaving particularly stupidly.

As a result, local elections from 1979-1997 were poor for the Tories except for General Election years and "one-offs" like 1982 (the Falklands conflict) and 1988 (collapse of the SDP Liberal Alliance and an economic boom).

[ image: Councillors in Britain, 1979 and 1997]
Councillors in Britain, 1979 and 1997
In 1979 the Conservatives had over 12,000 councillors, nearly half of the GB total, by 1997 that had fallen to about 4,500, about 20% of the total.

Labour and the Lib Dems have filled the vacated space - from 7,350 councillors to nearly 11,000 (29% to 47%) by Labour and from 1,000 to 5,000 (4% to 22%) by the Lib Dems.

The Tories controlled 257 councils in 1979 but just 21 in 1997. Labour went from 78 to 206 and the Lib Dems from 1 to 55. Councils with no overall control - often with Lib/Lab power-sharing - went from 79 to 137.

[ image: Councils in Britain, 1979 and 1997]
Councils in Britain, 1979 and 1997
These figures suggest the Tories have nowhere to go but up. The national polls suggest that they are still trapped in the voting doldrums, but in fact even a poor performance in May will see them making gains from both the other parties.

Benchmarks for the parties

All the parties will try to create really low expectations for their May performance, so that when they do better than that they can claim success.

A good measure is the overall share of the vote, adjusted to reflect what would have happened if all of Britain had voted, not just the areas with elections. It works like a barometer:

43+% Set fair for Labour, still at or above its share in the General Election
42% Matches their performance in the equivalent elections in 1994
40-42% Pressure falling, but not too bad for a governing party
Below 38%   Storm warning
43+% High summer for a party that seems stuck in winter
40-43% Set fair, but needs to be better than this before 2001
36-40% Improving, will gain plenty of seats, but 40+% is what oppositions need
32-35% Glacially slow warming on 97, enough to get back some once-safe seats
28-31%           Better than 94, so a few seats gained, but still worse than 97
27% Deep Depression, as bad as 94

Liberal Democrat
27+% High pressure performance, would be their best ever
27% Would match their best ever, 1994
25-27% Fair, better than their local election performance in 1997
22-25% Pressure falling, dropping below their 1993-97 average in locals
18-22% Squalls, seats and councils will be lost, but above their 97 GE share
15-17%           Storms, below their 97 GE result and as bad as the opinion polls

One thing to watch out for is the extent to which the Liberal Democrats retain their strength in the areas where they won Parliamentary seats. It is perfectly possible that their share of the overall vote could fall while they hang on in those places where they are most active.

The by-election form guide

Local council by-elections happen on nearly every Thursday. How the parties do in these little-noticed elections is often a good guide to what happens in the main local elections each May.

Since the General Election the Conservatives have done quite well, with over 60 net gains. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University have used the by-elections to estimate national vote shares for the parties.

 1994 vote share1998 Projected Vote ShareChange

Although 33% is a poor vote share, the Tories start from so far back that a result like that on May 7 would see them make a lot of gains.

Projected seat gains and losses
Congain 273
Lablose 30
LibDemlose 231

Stories to Watch

Labour's new voters

Many of the councils holding elections cover constituencies where Labour made huge advances last year. Many of the new Government's policies of the last 12 months have been designed to address this new electorate. Have Labour's new recruits stayed loyal?

Labour's old heartlands

Are they feeling neglected? Do the low turn-outs in local council by-elections in these areas hint at a lack of enthusiasm for New Labour? In one recent by-election in Liverpool the turn-out fell to just 6.3%.

Labour's troubled councils

Will the notoriety of the more colourfully inept Labour councils damage the party locally or nationally? Keep an eye on Doncaster, Hackney, Hull, Lambeth, Liverpool and Southwark.

New Lib Dem territory

The Lib Dems have made sweeping gains in once true-blue Tory heartlands in both local and national elections. Will the national party's close support of Labour on several issues cost them votes in these quiet, middle-class neighbourhoods?

Lab/LibDem contests

Will voters get confused in those areas where the two are fighting not co-operating? In most of them Labour trounced their opponents in the General Election but the Lib Dems have the troops on the ground.

Will pavement politics protect the Lib Dems in Southwark, Harrow, Rochdale, Liverpool, Sheffield, Oldham, Pendle and Hastings?

Tory heartlands

There are plenty of elections in comfortable suburbs and prosperous country areas. In many the Tories have suffered some of their most embarrassing reverses of recent years.

If they can not begin to win these back now that Labour is taking the blame for the decisions of government then they really are in trouble. The councils in Hampshire (Hart, Havant, Basingstoke, Fareham, Rushmoor, Eastleigh and Winchester), M25-Land (St Albans, Epping Forest, Hertsmere, Runnymede, Woking, Mole Valley, Tandridge, Elmbridge, Reigate, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells), the outer London suburbs and the plush bits of the big cities are absolutely vital to the Tory recovery.


Will doubtful Labour supporters just stay away? The General Election turn-out was low, criticism of the Labour Government is mounting, the Tories appear to be at best just beginning the climb back to respectability and the Lib Dems are suffering from a lack of visibility.

The Referendum may increase the turn-out in London, but elsewhere the motivation to vote may remain low.

Matching the polls?

No-one expects the local elections to simply reflect the national opinion polls. They are not parliamentary elections after all. Voters know that they are not choosing a national government or a prime minister and so the Blair effect should be significantly weaker than it would be in any national contest.

Labour competence

The polls suggest that Labour is regarded as better able to deal with problems than the Tories. In local government that relationship is probably less in Labour's favour. Many Labour councils have tarnished reputations and few are renowned for their efficiency. On the other hand the Tories have virtually no town hall record to defend.

Making a choice - local elections are often seen as a painless way of passing judgement on the government of the day. Councils are little noticed, not highly regarded and highly constrained in their actions. In only a few do local issues over-ride national concerns.

So if the electorate is becoming increasingly critical of Labour they may decide to use May 7 as a way of expressing that opinion. They may feel that staying away, or voting for another party will is no great risk and so Labour's comparative advantage over the Tories in a national vote may be much smaller in the locals.

Where are the elections?

There are no elections (bar casual by-elections) in Scotland or Wales. In England the councils with elections cover just over half the total electorate ( i.e. 20 million out of a registered electorate of 37 million have the chance to vote: 5 million in Greater London, 8 million in the metropolitan councils and 7 million in the shire districts and the unitary authorities).

London Boroughs (32): all councils, all seats to be contested

Metropolitan Boroughs (36): all councils, one third of seats to be contested

Non-metropolitan Districts (88): less than one-third of the councils, one third of seats to be contested

10 Unitary Authorities: 9 with elections by thirds, 1 with all seats to be contested.

London - the big story

The Referendum for the mayor and strategic authority for London also happens on May 7. This reinforces the fact that the big story will inevitably be in London.

All-out elections there mean that changes in council control are much more likely than in councils where only one third of seats are due to be filled and where the huge Labour and Lib Dem gains of the last four years will take more than one election to unwind. London was also the scene of some of the Tories' worst performances in the General Election and so becomes a good test of their ability to recover.

All three parties have much to defend and something to gain in the capital, unlike many other areas where one or other of the big three is often virtually absent.

An explanation of "election by thirds"

Some councils have elections which roll through a four-year cycle. In each of the first three years one-third of the seats fall vacant and have to be contested. In the fourth year there are no elections. So Birmingham has 117 councillors, 39 of whom retire in 1998, 39 in 1999 and 39 in 2000. Because Labour has built up a huge majority in the last three elections it will take at least two years for them to lose control.

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