Local Elections: Parties shy away from predicting poll wins: Labour braced to lose up to 200 seats

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The Independent Online
BOTH Labour and Conservatives are distinctly reluctant to admit to any ambition in next month's local elections, let alone predict winning control of target authorities. Playing down the chances of success is seen as the best way to avoid having egg on their faces following the unpredicatable elections on 5 May.

Jack Straw's assistants in the environment spokesman's office are warning of the potential loss of up to 200 seats for Labour. They say the party has no chance of winning Westminster and Wandsworth, the Tories' London flagships, and outside the capital it is merely in the business of defending the big gains of 1990.

Although the Conservatives are trailing pathetically in national opinion polls, Labour says it cannot expect to win much on 5 May, apart from depriving the Conservatives of control of a couple of London boroughs, Enfield and Croydon, and perhaps taking back Ealing and Brent.

At Conservative Central Office, Sir Norman Fowler refuses to predict anything other than a tough fight. He will not commit the party to target a triumph in Birmingham or Bradford, where only a handful of Labour seats have to change hands. Many of these seats are ones the Tories lost for the first time in 1990 and only the party's poll tax disaster allowed Labour to win.

Such coyness stems as much from the fear of having to appear on Radio 4's Today programme early on 6 May to defend a local election thrashing, as from a genuine lack of local knowledge. If no targets are set, no goals mentioned, then not even the most assiduous interviewer has a benchmark to test success or failure.

For Sir Norman, the rewards of not having to justify failure are that it puts less pressure on John Major and his leadership and causes fewer problems for the European election campaign a month later.

Labour, for its part, can take comfort from a poor result by pointing to early warnings that 1990 was a freak year, and that the party is really in fine shape for Europe and the next general election.

It is the spread of elections that helps make the national picture complicated and a haven for political 'spin doctors'. Voting takes place in 114 English non-metropolitan districts, 36 metropolitan districts, 32 London boroughs, nine Scottish regional councils, three Scottish island councils and four Welsh district councils. Labour controls 15 of the London boroughs, 25 of the metropolitan districts and 45 of the non-metropolitan districts up for election.

In 1990, Labour did well outside London, while the reverse was true for the Conservatives. In many metropolitan districts Labour won virtually every seat in 1990, and in Barnsley and Tameside it is the only party defending seats next month.

Like the Conservatives, 1990 was also an extremely poor year for the Liberal Democrats, who were still suffering from the confusion about exactly what to call their party. The party will find it hard to do worse in 1994 and could well make significant gains at both the expense of Labour in urban areas and the Conservatives in the districts.

Vernon Bogdanor, reader in government at Oxford University, said the share of the vote secured by the Conservatives in the metropolitan districts was the lowest since they were formed in 1974.

'The local government elections will not give a good guide to the national picture without careful interpretation,' he said. 'The Conservatives can quite easily perform badly but say they have turned the corner, while Labour can perform quite well but appear as if they are incapable of forming a government'.

The position is demonstrated clearly by the state of the parties in Birmingham, where 39 of the 117 seats are being contested and Labour has an overall majority of seven. Labour's success in 1990 means it is defending 28 seats against the Conservatives' six.

To destroy Labour's control, the Conservatives only have to win four seats. Becoming the biggest party needs victory in more than 10 of the 28 seats, many of which were considered 'natural' Tory constituencies until the poll tax debacle. A 'good' result for Labour would be to lose fewer than four seats. A 'good' result for the Tories would be to recover control or at least deprive Labour of absolute control.

The position in London, where every seat in the 32 boroughs is up for election, is likely to provide a clearer test of national politics than in the districts as there was virtually no swing to Labour recorded in 1990.

But the performance of the parties is expected to vary dramatically from borough to borough depending on local factors. The chaotic Labour administration in Lambeth is under attack from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, while Ealing and Brent, both Tory-controlled, are likely to slip back to Labour.

Other unknown factors include the impact of accusations of racism against the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets and those of gerrymandering against the Tories in Westminster.

(Table omitted)

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