Page last updated at 20:13 GMT, Monday, 28 April 2008 21:13 UK

Councils set for election fever

By Martyn Oates
BBC South West Political Editor

Plymouth Hoe
The Conservatives currently hold power in Plymouth

Election fever in the South West is confined to just three councils in Devon and Dorset - with only a third of the seats on each going to the polls.

But what they may lack in quantity, the elections should more than make up for in interest.

The local authorities in question include the region's two major cities, Plymouth and Exeter.

The third - Weymouth & Portland - is the main population centre in the marginal South Dorset constituency.

In Plymouth the power struggle is traditionally a two-party affair, with control see-sawing between Labour and the Conservatives ever since the unitary authority was created 11 years ago.

Liberal presence

Last year a Conservative victory put an end to four years of Labour rule, while the Liberal Democrats lost their two seats to be left with no representation on the council.

No party has had overall control of Exeter City Council for most of this decade, but the election last year claimed a prominent Labour scalp, when the then group leader lost his seat to a Liberal Democrat challenger.

However, Labour remains the largest group, albeit with two fewer seats. The Liberal Democrats are snapping at their heels, with the Conservatives in third place.

The "traditional" Liberals - who objected to the merger with the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 - also maintain a small presence in the council chamber.

The third piece in the jigsaw, Weymouth & Portland Borough Council, is another hung council - and it has been that way for more than a generation.

Exeter
No one political party has overall control in Exeter

The Conservatives edged into the lead last May, with the the Liberal Democrats falling back to second place and Labour a poor third.

It will be big news if any one party takes overall control of Weymouth & Portland for the first time since 1980 when the Conservatives lost power.

Dramatic changes here could also have a wider importance.

The South Dorset constituency is one of the region's marginals seats.

Sitting Labour MP and Schools Minister Jim Knight won it from the Conservatives in 2001 by only 153 votes - Labour's smallest majority in England.

He increased his majority substantially to 1,812 in 2005, but South Dorset is still far from being considered a safe Labour seat.

A surge by one of the main parties in Weymouth & Portland may hint at the direction the electorate is likely to take in the next general election, and significant swings in marginals can make make and unmake governments.

A grand total of 177 candidates will be contesting the 46 seats on offer on Thursday 1 May.

Weymouth seafront
Weymouth & Portland has been a hung council since 1980

Labour and the Conservatives are both contesting all 46 and the Liberal Democrats 41.

After the three main parties, the largest numbers of candidates are being fielded by the Green Party with 16 and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) with 15.

UKIP has two MEPs in the South West, but neither party currently has any councillors on the three councils up for election this week. The Liberals are fielding just four candidates - but have the consolation of already having four councillors on Exeter City Council.

Two candidates are standing for the British National Party (BNP) in Plymouth, while seven candidates aim to continue a longstanding Westcountry tradition of being elected on an Independent ticket


SEE ALSO
Local Council elections in England
09 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
The city that really swings
28 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
Parties in final push for votes
28 Apr 08 |  UK Politics

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