Tough choices await the victors in May’s council elections

After Eastleigh and the Budget, all eyes in Westminster are now focused on the outcome of May’s local government elections, as pundits and politicians alike try to size up the odds of the coalition Government clinging on to power in 2015.

The three main party leaders have all launched their local election campaigns this week. While these elections are not at the forefront of the public’s imagination right at this moment, their results could have a substantial impact on the national political environment, as well as on those using local council services and companies contracting with local authorities.

Presiding over a stagnating economy, tough changes to welfare entitlements and an increasingly fractious coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives will be hoping for only a modest reduction in their representation on the county councils, which have traditionally been the bedrock of the Conservative local government base, and in an additional seven unitary authorities, when England’s voters go to the polls on 2 May. The voters of Doncaster and North Tyneside will also choose their Mayors in next month’s elections.

Even if he can overcome a challenging mid-term political environment, David Cameron may struggle to resist a far more powerful force: that of electoral gravity. In 2009, the last time these non-metropolitan county council seats were contested, the Conservatives won nearly two-thirds of the seats and ended up in majority control of 30 out of the 34 councils which were up for election. Even without the presence of an insurgent UKIP, the Conservatives would be struggling to maintain their overwhelmingly dominant position against a Labour Party which is ahead in the national opinion polls, and the strong grassroots organisation of the Liberal Democrats.

Psephologists and seasoned election-watchers will watch closely for four results in particular, those in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, all of which the Conservatives gained from Labour in 2009. Strong Labour performances in all four would be used by Ed Miliband’s supporters to argue that Labour is well on his way towards translating opinion poll leads into victories at the ballot box. Also, expect any Labour gains made in the south of England to be loudly trumpeted by the Party; a region where Labour has arguably struggled to make substantial inroads since 2010 and one which was wooed effectively by the last Labour Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair, back in the 1990s.

For the Liberal Democrats, buoyed by their recent victory in the Eastleigh by-election, these elections will be used to further develop their ‘differentiation’ strategy with both their coalition partners and Labour. The strategy of re-establishing equidistance between the two largest parties is encapsulated in their promise that only the Liberal Democrats can deliver both a ‘stronger economy’ and a ‘fairer society’, which seeks to prey on the chief vulnerabilities of both the Labour Opposition and the Conservatives respectively. The Liberal Democrats will be hoping to make gains in the West Country, having lost both Somerset and Devon to the Conservatives four years ago; this was where Nick Clegg, therefore, launched his party’s campaign on Monday.

Regardless of the political colours England’s county councils end up sporting on 3 May, and the short-term national political fall-out which can be expected to ensue, those running local government in the next four years will face a plethora of public policy challenges. One part of the country where a Labour victory could provide valuable insight into Labour’s approach to public policy is in relation to the outsourcing of services in marginal Lancashire, in particular the County’s Welfare Rights Advisory Service. Labour have strongly opposed the move, with a local Labour candidate describing it as an “act of social vandalism”.

As such, Labour would likely seek to re-negotiate or halt the outsourcing of the Advisory Service if it takes over control next month, impacting on those companies, such as BT, who currently benefit financially from consulting on the efficiency of local government service provision. Given the encouragement which has been given to councils to collaborate with the private sector to deliver savings since 2010, such changes could be commonplace in several areas of the country if Labour performs well on 2 May.

As such, and despite a restrictive funding environment for local government, the county council elections next month could provide valuable insights for both politicians and others involved in the delivery of local government services. Furthermore, this May’s elections will, alongside the local authority and European elections scheduled for May 2014, provide one of the last opportunities for the parties to demonstrate tangible evidence to the voters regarding what the next government, regardless of its political complexion, will select as its priorities after 2015.

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