Local elections threaten Major with a humiliation too far

All the evidence points to another Tory disaster in May, writes John Curtice
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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR'S chances of surviving until 1997 may depend on the voters of Huntingdon rather than MPs at Westminster. For even the Prime Minister's own local council could fall into opposition hands in this year's round of municipal elections to be held on 2 May. Possibly accompanied by the loss of no less than 800 of the 1,100 seats the Tories will be defending across England that day, such a result could well precipitate a new round of Tory leadership jitters.

Computer projections indicate that the Tories are in danger of losing 600 seats to Labour and 200 to the Liberal Democrats, should voting patterns imitate last year's local election results. The Conservatives would become quite clearly the third party in local government, with over 1,000 fewer councillors than the Liberal Democrats in Britain as a whole.

These key findings of a computer analysis of the party's prospects in this year's local elections, undertaken especially for the Independent on Sunday, will do little to calm the continued nervousness amongst Tory backbenchers about their party's future. The same technique accurately forecast the scale of the Tory disaster in both the 1994 and 1995 local elections.

The Tories could not face a more difficult test in May. True, far fewer seats will be up for grabs than last year when over 2,000 Tory councillors lost their seats. Only one-third of the seats will be at stake in the 36 metropolitan district councils outside London, together with fewer than 100 of the shire districts.

In just a score or so councils affected by local government reform will all the council seats be up for election. There are no elections at all in London, Scotland or Wales.

But of those seats which are up for grabs, the Tories are defending more than anyone else. For in most places this year's election is for seats which were last contested four years ago, just a month after the Conservative's success in the April 1992 general election.

Unsurprisingly, the Tories swept to local success on the back of their national victory.

Most spectacularly, they won every single seat in Basildon, the home of "Essex man". Across the nation as whole the Conservatives had no less than 45 per cent of the popular vote.

Demoralised and disorganised, Labour did even worse than in the general election, winning just 30 per cent of the vote. The Liberal Democrats, on 19 per cent, just about managed to hold their own.

But that, of course, was before Black Wednesday when the pound fell out of the ERM and the Tories plunged into an electoral black hole, a hole from which they still show no sign of emerging. Even after the pollsters "adjust" their results to correct for their underestimate of Tory support at the last election, the party's average poll rating is still only 28 per cent. Labour are no less than 25 points ahead on 53 per cent, while the Liberal Democrats flounder on 15 per cent.

Labour's lead is exactly what it was before last May's local elections. Indeed, all three parties are within a point of their average poll rating last spring. Every Tory initiative of the last 12 months, including John Major's leadership battle in June and Kenneth Clarke's tax giveaways in November has failed to bring the party any relief from the electoral gloom.

True, local election results do not always match national opinion poll ratings. Labour, for example, has yet to realise its 50 per cent-plus ratings in the ballot box. Even last year, one of its best ever, Labour only reached 46 per cent, six points lower than in the polls.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, usually save their best performances for local elections. Last year they managed no less than 24 per cent of the vote. There was little cheer though for the Tories whose 25 per cent was every bit as bad as the polls forecast.

So, with the polls looking like they did last May, our best guide to what could happen this May is how the electorate voted last May. That implies a 20 point slump in the Tory vote. Labour would be up by 16 points and the Liberal Democrats by four points.

Our computer projection tells us what would happen if that were to happen in every single seat. The Tories would lose no less than 700 seats. The lions' share of the spoils would go to Labour with 550 gains, while the Liberal Democrats would have up to 150.

But last year's results, and indeed those in 1993 and in 1994 as well, suggest that the Tory vote will not fall by the same amount everywhere. Rather, it is likely to drop most in those seats it won last time.

On average, the Tory vote fell last year by an extra four points in those seats it was defending. Moreover, this additional Tory loss benefited whichever of Labour or the Liberal Democrats was best placed locally to defeat the Tories. If that were to happen in May also, then Tory losses would climb to 800 seats.

Moreover, even some of the islands of Tory control left after last year's devastation could be lost. Just four of the 13 councils still in Tory hands will have elections in May - Broxbourne, Macclesfield, Runnymede, and John Major's home council of Huntingdon. But none of them are safe.

According to our projection, Macclesfield and Runnymede are likely to be lost. Meanwhile, if last year's above average Tory losses in Broxbourne happened again that would fall also.

Which leaves just the Prime Minister's citadel. On our projection, local Tories should retain control - but only just. All would turn on a handful of votes in just two or three key wards the Tories need to hold.

In fact one of those wards was lost to Labour last year. If just one more should fall this year too, then the last Tory light will die. And with it so might John Major's hopes of leading his party into a 1997 election. For going from running everything in Basildon to losing control in somewhere as symbolic as Huntingdon might just be more than even the most stoic of Tory MPs can bear to stomach.

John Curtice is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Strathclyde University and Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.