The Liberal democrats face a double blow at next month's council elections, when they will field fewer candidates than usual and could be the main victims of a Labour recovery.
Nick Clegg’s party, which has traditionally hoovered up anti-government protest votes in mid-term elections, is braced for heavy losses on 5 May now that it is in power at Westminster.
More than 9,000 seats are up for grabs, about 5,000 of which are held by the Conservatives, 1,800 the Liberal Democrats, 1,600 by Labour and 800 by other parties and independents. Figures from town halls yesterday showed that the Lib Dems have candidates to put up in only 59 per cent of the seats, down from 64 per cent when they were last fought four years ago. The biggest falls appear to be in the south-east and north-west, both down about 10 per cent.
Labour will contest 72 per cent – up from 60 per cent last time. The increase reflects a drive to fight back in the south, where the party did badly at last year’s general election.
The Tories will field candidates in 93 per cent of the seats next month, up from 88 per cent in 2007.
Both Labour and Tory officials have detected signs of a backlash among grassroots Lib Dem activists against Mr Clegg’s decision to enter the Coalition, the Government’s spending cuts and the hike in university tuition fees.
A Labour source said the party’s stronger presence in the south could help the Tories, as people who had voted Lib Dem in the hope of defeating the Tories switch to Labour or abstain. A Lib Dem spokesman admitted that taking difficult decisions in government and "moving from a party of protest to a party of power" were bound to affect the ability to recruit people. But he said the drop in the number of standard-bearers was mainly in unwinnable seats previously fought by “paper candidates”. He added: “We have got some really good, strong, hard-working candidates. There is absolutely no concern.”
Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, said the party had increased its number of candidates in the south by 16 per cent. But she played down predictions that Labour would gain 1,000 seats, saying: “We still have a long way to go, especially in areas where for too long people have not had a Labour candidate and therefore have not been able to vote Labour.”
The Tories said 250 of their candidates had already been returned unopposed after the two other main parties failed to stand. Labour had only seven candidates with no opposition and the Liberal Democrats five.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory chairman, said: “The Conservatives are the only party fighting for every part of England. This is in stark contrast to Labour, which can’t find candidates in three out of 10 seats. So much for Ed Miliband’s promise of a new generation in politics – he can’t even beat New Labour.”