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Vote2018: Thursday’s other West Midlands elections

Vote2018: Thursday’s other West Midlands elections

🕔02.May 2018

The media focus on this week’s council elections, we’re told, will be principally on London.  Well, there’s a shock. When wasn’t it? Even when Londoners aren’t voting, it’s hard enough to get serious national media coverage even for big and marginal contests in the regions, writes Chris Game

Part of the excuse, of course – apart from ignorance, indolence and cost – is that the London boroughs have whole-council elections every four years, which certainly can make for more dramatic contests.

Opinion polls, which for London put Labour way ahead of its standing in the rest of the country, suggest it could, even should, take Barnet, Conservative-run since I was at school (1960s!), but ‘hung’ since March, when a peeved deselected councillor resigned in a huff.

And the other jewels in the Conservative local government crown are also vulnerable – ultra low-tax Wandsworth and Westminster, and even, in the fall-out from Grenfell, Kensington & Chelsea.

I concede that a Corbyn-led Labour Party running just some of the above would merit headlines it would be tough to match.

Unless, just perhaps, the projections of those “Westminster insider” experts a couple of months ago – that Birmingham Conservatives could lose every new one- and two-member ward outside Sutton, and, as a consequence, Theresa May “could be forced to resign by her own MPs” – are proved to have been inspired, rather than merely headline-seeking.

The Files editor, who gets out and about rather more than Westminster insiders, reckoned such talk was “surely wide of the mark”.  But he also showed in his Battleground round-up – to which this preview will not be adding – how the radical reorganisation of wards has made it at least conceivable.

VOTE2018: Council battlegrounds on 3 May

What doesn’t seem in doubt, though, is the overall result, of Labour extending its six-year control of the city council for what this time will be a guaranteed four years.

Birmingham apart, however, I reckon that proportionately our electoral uncertainty quotient here in the metropolitan West Midlands is considerably higher than London’s.

And that’s what the rest of this highly selective blog is largely about: the councils whose control after Thursday could seem genuinely in doubt and that therefore ought to be attracting the greatest attention among their respective electorates – though preferably not by idiot candidates producing their own unauthorised and repugnant election literature.

The ‘battlefield’ line-ups are set out in the table, the right-hand side of which is intended as a reminder of something often overlooked, which is that fewer of our region’s councils than is sometimes supposed are absolutely ‘safe’ for either of the two main parties.

Just two electoral cycles ago, as we approached Election Day 2010 and Gordon Brown was enjoying – well, experiencing – his last days as PM, only Sandwell in the West Midlands had a majority Labour administration. The other six boroughs were run by the Conservatives, either on their own or in partnership with the Lib Dems.

Today, the reverse is the case. Only in Solihull do the Conservatives have an absolute majority, Dudley earning its blue shading in the table by the minority administration there being able to call on UKIP support in crucial votes – as for the March budget, when the two parties defeated Labour’s bid to push the council tax increase above 4.49%.

Otherwise, the red-shaded rows dominate, indicating the councils where Labour already has a firm control which could well be numerically strengthened.

DUDLEY’s result, more than most, will be determined by the fate of its UKIP candidates. 2014 was when the seats up this time were last contested, and for UKIP it was the first of its big election years, winning nearly 16% of the vote nationally and over 160 seats, including seven in Dudley. Only one, though – Upper Gornal & Woodsetton – was by a margin of more than 6% or a couple of hundred votes.

It’s a cliché that every vote counts, but it’s particularly likely in local elections, and very particularly in Dudley local elections.

This time, UKIP isn’t contesting every seat, but most of the 2014 winners are standing again, including erstwhile deputy group leader Paul Bradley in Amblecote – though as a Conservative, having decided exactly a year ago to join the Theresa May bandwagon en route to an expected huge General Election majority – ooops!

At the most recent council elections in 2016, though UKIP was still riding quite high in the polls, its sole victory was in Wordsley.  Labour won four of the seven UKIP wards, and Conservatives two: Gornal and Sedgley, the latter being defended this time by Bill Etheridge – MEP and three-time party leadership contender, who launched his campaign early this year on YouTube.

Obviously, given the borough’s many ultra-marginal wards, plus the propensity of places like Kingswinford North & Wall Heath to swing wildly between successive elections, only an idiot would attempt a prediction. Mine is a narrow overall Labour majority – though partly for sentimental reasons.

Councillor David Sparks, former Labour Leader of Dudley Council, for 12 years Chairman of the national Local Government Association, friend of INLOGOV, and much, much more, is choosing this year to retire. Then on the West Midlands County Council, he was one of the first councillors I met after coming to Birmingham, and it would be a pleasing send-off for him personally to leave with his party in control again.

SOLIHULL is interesting because it’s the only West Midlands borough that fills all the party columns in my table, which could mean that the Conservatives’ majority is less secure than it looks, or at least that it’s susceptible to challenge from several different directions.

It’s the only West Midlands borough with any Green councillors at all, and currently they’re the third largest Green group in England – very slightly behind those in Brighton and Bristol, but in neither of these cases do they constitute the official opposition, as here.

Like the other opposition groups, they’re concentrated on the western boundary of the borough, on bits of the border with Birmingham: UKIP in the north (Kingshurst & Fordingbridge), the Greens in the north (Smith’s Wood and Chelmsley Wood) and south (Shirley South and West), and the LEO cluster of Lib Dems in the middle (Lyndon, Elmdon, and Olton).

They’re the bits that Labour held in the heady days of its having a dozen or more councillors, and it’s where its chief hopes lie today.  It took Kingshurst & Fordingbridge from UKIP in 2014 and may hope to benefit from the incumbent Lib Dems stepping down in Elmdon and Lyndon.

But, so long as the minority groups fight amongst themselves, the Conservatives’ majority looks secure.  If confirmation were needed, Blythe was their most marginal ward in 2014, but in a by-election earlier this year their candidate romped home with over three-quarters of the vote.

WALSALL was another rewarding UKIP hunting ground in 2014, though the vagaries of our electoral system meant that its 27% of the vote produced only three seats.  All three incumbents are standing again, although technically only Darren and Liz Hazell in Short Heath and Willenhall North respectively are defending – Stephen Craddock in Brownhills being another of those who, once elected, decided he was really a Conservative.

In 2016 the UKIP defenders in all three wards were fairly comfortably defeated, by Labour in Brownhills and in the other two by Lib Dems, including party group leader Ian Shires in Willenhall North.

To take overall control, Labour needs more than a straight reprise of that result, but ultra-marginals are far thinner on the ground than in Dudley, and, while Bloxwich West should be regainable, it’s not obvious – to an outside observer like me, anyway – where else any low-hanging fruit is to be found. Still, in less than 48 hours we’ll all know.

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