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banner Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK
Shadow boxing at the locals

The BBC's local government correspondent Rory MacLean explains why the local elections are all about having an eye on the general election.

"All politics is local" Tip O'Neill, the late and widely respected Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, once said.

In principle, this also applies to the local elections in England. But the main political parties have increasingly come to treat them as more than just a vote on whether an individual council is doing a good job in the eyes of its residents.

They view these elections - involving over 3,000 council seats and 152 English local authorities - as a form of political beauty contest, an indicator of their fortunes.

The elections could also play an important role for the pundits who pore over the details. This is because if the Labour Party does decide to go for a general election in May next year, these local elections would be the last big electoral test of the government's popularity before that.


Up for grabs
152 English councils
3,337 seats

Some believe, however, that Tony Blair will instead wait until after next year's local elections and go for a date in June.

Whatever the future, the usual spin-fest has been going on with the political parties all playing down their own chances of success and playing up their opponents' chances.

This way they can theoretically "win" both ways by doing better than they would have forecast while the other parties fail to hit the high targets that have been predicted for them.

An eye on the bigger picture

Labour has not been slow off the mark. At the party's campaign launch in Milton Keynes, a council it wants to keep control of, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - who compered the event with Tony Blair as chief speaker - said the Conservatives needed to win 700 seats in order to show a comeback.


March polls
Lab: 48%
Con: 31%
Lib Dems: 14%
(General election voting intention averaged over three polls)

The figure was partly based on the fact that the last time most of these seats were contested was in 1996, when the Tories lost around 600.

But that election was held against a background of a deeply unpopular Conservative government.

It would be more realistic to say that anything in excess of 400 seats could be a sign of return to political form for the Tories.

The message from Labour has been one of a tough fight ahead and a clarion call to its supporters to turn out against a real Tory threat.

Observers see in Tony Blair's campaign slogan, "A lot done a lot to do", the beginnings of the general election campaign.

Tories hoping for revival

The Conservatives launched their local election campaign in Windsor. Windsor and Maidenhead Council is a local authority they have their eye on to win.

The party has been reluctant to play the predictions game, sticking instead to saying that if they achieve the same share of the vote they won in last year's local elections, they should gain around 170 seats and control of five local authorities.

Clearly Tories expect to do better than this in terms of seats.

But they also point out that more than half the seats up for election now fall in urban areas where Labour should have an advantage.

Town hall powerhouse?

The Liberal Democrats often portray themselves as a powerhouse in local government. The party's high-profile gain last year came when it took Sheffield from Labour.

This time round they are sounding cautious about their chances. In particular the Lib Dems say they see a north-south divide. In the north, Labour is the main opposition and it is here the Lib Dems hope to make gains.

In the south the Conservatives are the main opposition. Here the Lib Dems are, in private, worried about losing ground to the Tories in places such as Torbay. Overall the Lib Dems will have done well if they come out slightly ahead in terms of seats, with gains in the north outweighing losses in the south.

Whatever happens, just as the parties are currently determined to talk down all expectations in advance of polling day, so they will be doing their best to sound positive about the outcome.

But the most important effect of the local elections could well be one we don't get to know about for another year.

The results that come in on 5 May will help Prime Minister Blair decide whether he needs to wait as long as possible before going to the country again in order to be returned to office with a large majority - or whether going for it in May next year would be the best bet.

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25 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Early start to local elections
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