Can Ed Miliband drill through the seam of local election apathy in Lancashire and release the gas that could help him soar to power in 2015?
The county has recently been shaken by shale gas exploration, could the same happen in the county elections next week? It is the Labour leader’s opportunity to show he has the ability to win back the middle class votes he needs in places like Chorley and Rossendale
It is that time in the local election cycle when the cities fall silent and the voice of the rural north is heard. Voters will be going to the polls in the shire counties across England including North Yorkshire, which skirts the northern suburbs of Leeds, Derbyshire, Cumbria and crucially Lancashire.
Four years ago the county elections were a harbinger of doom for Gordon Brown. The Tories gained a massive 22 seats in the Red Rose County to sweep into power under the controversial Geoff Driver with a majority of 18. The Liberal Democrats, then untainted by decisions in government, also did well gaining 5 seats from Labour in Burnley alone.
It’s sad in many ways that Lancashire councillors will be very vulnerable to the national mood of the electorate. A good local track record cannot always save you from defeat. That may also be true for Cllr Driver who many feel has done a good job whilst ruffling a few feathers. But he’s been doing that since he was Chief Executive of Preston many years ago. He has been prepared to defy his own party clashing with Education Secretary Michael Gove over academy primary schools in the county.
Labour’s opinion poll lead has weakened recently and they lag the Tories when people are asked about economic competence. That said the Conservatives look set for the mid term blues as people facing benefit changes, no work or just a general squeeze on their living standards take it out on the Tories and their Lib Dem allies. Although that Lancashire Conservative majority of 18 looks secure, 14 wards are held by the party with majorities under 500.
Burnley will be the main battleground for the Liberal Democrats. On the back of their county success in 2009,Gordon Birtwhistle won the parliamentary seat a year later. If his local colleagues lose to Labour, his power base will be eroded.
There is a strong tradition of female Labour leadership in Lancashire. The successor to previous council leaders Louise Ellman and Hazel Harding is Jennifer Mein. She has not made a notable impact so far and indeed there are rumours that David Borrow, the ex Ribble South MP, may challenge her for the leadership after polling day.
The Green Party will hope to gain on their 2 seat representation on the county from the city of Lancaster. The BNP are a diminished force and are expected to lose their presence at County Hall. That leaves Tom Sharrett as the Idle Toad Party representative from South Ribble. He’ll be hopping mad if he loses!
Let’s hope local issues like the care of the elderly, education, roads and the council’s attitude to fracking for shale gas get an airing in the campaign rather than it just being an opinion poll on the Coalition.
Cumbria County Council recently faced a similar major decision affecting the environment when it said no to permanent underground storage of nuclear waste. The county is run by an unusual Conservative-Labour coalition. It will be interesting to see if the two parties stick together if Labour becomes the largest party.
Labour will expect to regain Derbyshire whilst North Yorkshire looks set to retain a Tory majority even in this difficult year for the party.
The wild card in these elections is UKIP. Their policies on local government remain vague. But how many voters will stop to ask themselves what could a UKIP councillor actually do for me at the Town Hall where our membership of the European Union is not an issue?
UKIP will take most, but not all votes from the Tories. They may not win many seats but could make the difference in marginal wards