BLUE has been banished from the political maps of all but one metropolitan local authority and from all but one county council during a decade of Conservative retreat in local government. Even in the shires, the party is losing its dominance to a combination of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Only in London have the Tories managed to maintain a respectable presence, with 11 of the 32 boroughs under their majority rule.
Labour controls 15, the Liberal Democrats three, while the Tories are the largest party in two of the remaining three where there is no overall control.
In the last local elections in 1990, the party did well in London, despite the furore over the poll tax. Triumph in the flagship boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster allowed the Conservatives to gloss over heavy defeats outside the capital.
But on 5 May, the provincial rot looks like spreading, at least as far as the outer London suburbs. Control could disappear in as many as six boroughs. Croydon, which has never been anything other than Conservative, is only six seats away from coming under Labour control.
Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, and Michael Portillo, the party's London campaign co-ordinator, will certainly have successes to cheer - Labour is likely to lose Lambeth - but the Tories have more to fear than Labour.
Labour strategists have already let it be known that they have no hope of winning Wandsworth or Westminster. Seats may be gained at the expense of the Conservatives but control is not an issue.
Elsewhere in inner London, Labour is dominant, apart from Kensington and Chelsea where the blue of Chelsea outvotes the red of north Kensington. Few surprises are expected between the two main parties in the inner-city where the real battle is between Labour and Liberal Democrats.
The exception is Lambeth. Once a stronghold of Labour's self-destructive tendency, expulsions and the imposition of a new clean party image are believed to have come too late to save the party from defeat.
Patrick Dunleavy, professor of government at the London School of Economics, said the borough had fallen into administrative chaos. Good managers in local government were simply not willing to work in the borough.
'The divisive rancour in the majority party has lasted long enough to have an impact on senior officers' careers,' he said. 'Once that has got into the system, unless you have a clear restoration of political will, it's very difficult to get the professionals back.'
Professor Dunleavy said a similar effect had accompanied political manoeuvrings in Brent - ruled by a Tory administration with the help of independents - and in Tower Hamlets, controlled by the Liberal Democrats and the scene of accusations of racism.
Labour may profit from the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets but could lose out to their opponents' community politics in Southwark, Greenwich and Lewisham. For the Conservatives, inner London will remain largely a desert unless exceptional trends are recorded away from the national polls.
The unpopularity of the Government is Labour's main driving force in the suburbs. The party's campaigning will rely heavily on national issues, while the Conservatives are busy developing a theme of providing low-cost services.
Straight gains are possible for Labour in Enfield, Ealing and Croydon. Six seats out of 70 are needed in Croydon, three out of 66 in Enfield, five out of 70 in Ealing. Enfield is particularly at risk.
A combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats could deprive the Tories of control in Barnet, where Labour is the biggest opposition party, and in Harrow, where the Liberal Democrats have more seats than Labour.
In south-west London the fight is between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
All but three seats on Richmond council are held by the Liberal Democrats, who also dominate Sutton. The party is looking to extend its control to Kingston upon Thames.
The Conservatives' best option may be to start preparing to limit the political damage.
In an article on 11 April we mistakenly stated that the Liberal Democrats have more council seats than Labour in the London borough of Harrow. Both parties share the same number of seats.
- More about:
- Kensington And Chelsea
- Liberal Democrat Party
- London Metropolitan University
- US Politics