Theresa May should be looking forward to the beginning of May with some trepidation. Instead it is Jeremy Corbyn and Paul Nuttall who have most to fear.
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.