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Chris Game: Local elections will be decided on a knife edge

Chris Game: Local elections will be decided on a knife edge

🕔30.Apr 2014

Last Friday was exactly four weeks before we’ll know the results of this year’s local elections. And last Friday also saw the appearance of something rather unusual – a national voting intention opinion poll that didn’t give Labour a lead.

It was one of the regular polls conducted by the market research company, Populus, and, of those respondents saying they would vote in a General Election, 35% said they’d vote Labour, 35% Conservative, 13% UKIP, and 9% Lib Dem.

Hardly a blue moon event, but, to put it in context, the last time Labour failed to register a lead was over 200 polls ago, in October last year, and the last time a Conservative lead was spotted was back in March 2012.

In itself, of course, this Populus poll means little. No single poll does, and on the same day a YouGov poll for The Sun put Labour 6% ahead.

Trends, though, do mean something, and Labour’s average lead in the 15 polls so far this month has been around 4%, which is significantly lower than at the time of the local elections in both 2013 and 2012, and significantly lower too than it should be for an opposition party hoping to form a majority government after next May’s General Election.

These poll results provide what might be termed the macro-political background to next month’s Birmingham City Council elections, and that’s what this preview is about. Almost needless to say, I leave the micro stuff to the incomparably better informed Paul Dale (Sub ed – look out for Paul’s seat by seat analysis tomorrow morning).

The actual seats being defended this year are those won and lost in 2010, in the elections that took place alongside, and were inevitably overshadowed by, the last General Election.

The General Election, of course, was a disaster for Labour – its second worst parliamentary election performance in 80 years. But in the metropolitan elections, where the seats being contested were those previously fought in 2006, when the Labour Government was at about its most unpopular, it had at least some victories to celebrate.

In Birmingham the then opposition party in the Council House took nearly 37% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 27%, and won six seats that it had lost in 2006: five from the Conservatives – Billesley, Brandwood, Kings Norton, Longbridge and Quinton – plus Bordesley Green from the Lib Dems.

In 2011, on the first anniversary of the Coalition Government, Labour did better still. Now comfortably in the lead in the national polls, it repeated those five gains from the Conservatives and added the prized Harborne ward.

The Lib Dems were even heavier losers, Labour gaining no fewer than seven of the ten seats they had won in 2007: Acocks Green, Hall Green, Hodge Hill, Moseley & Kings Heath, Selly Oak, South Yardley and Springfield.

Taking in addition Sparkbrook from the Respect Party, Labour came out of those 2011 elections, for the first time since 2004, as the council’s largest party and within sight of returning to majority control.

By May 2012 Labour’s opinion poll lead over the Conservatives was averaging 12%, while the Lib Dems were down from their General Election 23% to 8%. As generally happens, these figures were reflected in the local elections, which in Birmingham saw Labour take the Council House by storm, gaining 11 seats from the Conservatives, seven from the Lib Dems and one from Respect.

Most of these gains involved completing the cycle of restoring sets of three Labour councillors in wards that between 2006 and 2008 had been lost to other parties. But the most interesting gains, in the wards that will receive most attention this year, are the others – not least because, as noted at the start of this overview, that 12% opinion poll lead that Labour held in 2012 is now down to around 4%, below what it was even in 2011.

That change in itself represents a 4% swing from Labour to the Conservatives, but even more significant is that it has come about almost entirely through the fall in Labour’s support.

The Conservatives are currently averaging 32% in the polls, just as they were in 2012, but Labour’s rating has fallen from around 44% to 35%. That’s enough to make its candidates nervous, even without the Kingstanding factor – losing the previously rock-solid Labour ward to Conservative Gary Sambrook in February’s by-election.

In theory, if Kingstanding can go Conservative, nowhere’s safe. In practice, we’ll be looking particularly at those wards that were won in 2012 – particularly by Labour – by quite small margins, and which would be vulnerable to a Labour-Conservative swing of 5% or thereabouts.

As it happened, though, the smallest margin of all – 0.08% in Weoley – didn’t go to Labour at all, but to Conservative councillor Eddie Freeman, who held off his Labour challenger by just 2 votes out of 4,900.

You might think these knife-edge results, which occur far more frequently in local than in national elections, might incentivise electors to turn out, knowing there’s a real possibility of their individual vote significantly influencing the result, but sadly life doesn’t seem to work like that.

Two of Labour’s narrowest wins in 2012 were in the generally Conservative wards of Northfield and Bournville. Not having managed to win the wards in the previous two years, the arithmetic suggests it probably won’t this time.

Its hopes are bound to be higher in some or all of the five wards in which it took back seats from the Lib Dems in both 2011 and 2012 and where the incumbent is once more a Lib Dem: Acocks Green, Hall Green, Moseley & King’s Heath, Selly Oak and South Yardley.

The first two of these produced the tightest contests in 2012, the big difference between the two being that in Hall Green the defending Lib Dem was barely involved, squeezed by the bigger parties into a rather weak third place.

The losses suffered by the Lib Dems in 2011 and 2012 have left them with just three wards in which they hold all three seats – Perry Barr, Sheldon and Stechford & Yardley North. Labour is in second place in all three – closest probably in Perry Barr, most distant in Sheldon.

Conservative-held seats that, on the basis of those 2012 results, look most vulnerable to Labour are Edgbaston, Erdington and Harborne, but even the first two would require a swing to Labour of between 3 and 5%, whereas the polls are indicating the reverse.

Of course, the Conservative-held seat that would require no pro-Labour swing from 2012 at all is Sutton Vesey, taken triumphantly and emphatically by Rob Pocock by a margin of 13%. This year is unlikely to see a repeat, but we should get an idea of how many of his 3,321 votes were cast for the candidate rather than party.

Labour’s current total of 76 of the council’s 120 seats means it could lose 15 of the 21 seats it’s defending and still retain an overall majority. It would require a swing away from the party since 2012 hugely greater than 4% for anything resembling that to happen and it surely won’t.

Like the other parties, though, Labour does have its vulnerable seats. Springfield, for example, was held by the Lib Dems last time, and on an anti-Labour swing of 4% they could win Aston. And a 7% swing could give the Conservatives Kings Norton, Longbridge, and, if they can find another Gary Sambrook, Kingstanding.

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