LABOUR LANDSLIDE IN NORTH WEST TOWN HALLS?
Labour could be heading for the dominance of Town Halls in our region that they last enjoyed in the mid 1990s.
The local elections on May 3rd have been overshadowed by coverage of the elections and referendums on elected mayors. We need to remind ourselves that in Lancashire the issue is completely irrelevant. In most cases the old model of electing councillors to the Town Hall and the leader being chosen internally remains.
There are old fashioned elections for a third of the metropolitan councils in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. There are also contests for a third of the councillors in seven district councils in Lancashire and the all purpose councils in Blackburnwith Darwen,Warrington and Halton.
The political background against which these contests are taking place does have similarities to the mid nineties. In 1995 and 1996 the dying Tory government of John Major suffered successive hammerings in local elections which left them in control of only one council in the whole of the North of England.
Things aren’t that bad for the Conservatives this time but events have conspired to make it likely that this will be the election where the government really suffers the mid term blues. Last year the Tories dodged the bullet, partly because of the collapse of the Lib Dems. This time both coalition parties are likely to face the wrath of the voters for a range of reasons.
The economy is always the main factor and however much Ministers might look for signs of recovery, people and businesses are suffering.
Then there was the Budget. Far from helping Conservative and Lib Dem candidates in the North West, a range of unhelpful headlines will ensure a frosty reception on the doorstep, phone or Twitter.
The underlying strategy to keep bearing down on our national debt was right. What was wrong was not to foresee the reaction of people to the granny tax, the pasty penalty and the removal of tax relief on large charity donations.
So let’s look at how all this might play out on the ground in the North West with Labour having a healthy lead in the polls and the Lib Dems fighting with UKIP for third party status.
Labour is further helped by the fact that on the last three occasions when these seats were contested they did badly so they have “easy” ground to make up. In 2000 Tony Blair suffered mid term blues, in 2004 the Iraqwar was underway and in 2008 Gordon Brown’s brief honeymoon was over.
Last year the Tories made up for northern losses by taking Lib Dem seats in the south. This year they are defending some unlikely gains when Gordon Brown was in charge.
The Lib Dems may not repeat last year’s catastrophe which saw them lose nearly every seat they were defending in Liverpool and all in Manchester, but they could end up with less than three thousand councillors nationally for the first time since 1986.
Lancashire offers most prizes to Labour with the probability that they will win full control of Rossendale and become the largest party in Pendle, Chorley and Burnley. In Pendle and Chorley the Conservatives are currently the largest party, but in Burnley it’s the Lib Dems.
A Labour recovery in Burnley would mark the end of eight dark years for the party. They lost control in 2004 initially to a surge from the British National Party who were in turn replaced by the Lib Dems.
On the back of that the Lib Dems got Gordon Birtwhistle elected as MP which illustrates the importance of these polls for the General Election in three years time. If your council base is knocked away, you can lose the activists you need to fight the parliamentary contest.
An outside prospect for Labour is West Lancashirewhere they would need a net gain of six seats to resume the control they lost in 2002.
On Merseyside the most significant contest will be in Wirral. All hell has broken out around Wallasey Town Hall in the last couple of years. Two years ago the Tories took minority control. Last May Labour were back only for the Tories to link up once again with Lib Dem support to put Conservative Jeff Green back in charge in February.
Steve Foulkes, the long standing leader of Labour in the peninsula is standing down and added to all this a tale of alleged council officer incompetence is being revealed. Labour’s new leadership is hoping it can gain full control for the first time in ten years.
Labour has never had full control of Sefton. They need a net gain of five seats which will be difficult in this historically balanced council, but deep Tory divisions centred on ex Tory Sir Ron Watson may help.
In Greater Manchester, Lib Dem minority control of Stockport is in jeopardy. A lot will depend on whether the consistently underperforming Tories can help Labour in squeezing the Lib Dems.
Labour should take full control of Rochdale where the Lib Dems have been hit by defections to the Tories and Labour should consolidate the hold that they gained in Bury by the drawing of lots in a dead heat ward last May.
Trafford is likely to remain the one Tory bastion in Greater Manchester although Labour entertains a thin hope of removing the Tories overall majority.
Labour will hold the unitaries of Blackburn with Darwen, Halton and Warrington. In the latter case a particularly interesting contest will take place in the Lymm ward. Long standing Tory matriarch Sheila Woodyatt is up against Labour’s Su Williams. Williams is well regarded for her local community work and it might make a difference.
It is a reminder that for all the national political tides at work, local candidates can often make a difference.