Super Thursday: the battlegrounds

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Indy Politics

On 10 June, there will be elections in 144 of the 387 local authorities in England, with 4,807 of the 19,727 town hall seats being contested. In Wales, all 1,264 seats on the 22 councils will be up for grabs.

"Super Thursday", the biggest test of public opinion between the last and next general elections, will also see contests for all 78 British seats in the European Parliament, the London Mayor and the 25-strong London Assembly.

The local elections will be difficult to interpret as many councils will have new boundaries, making it almost impossible to set benchmarks in terms of numbers of seats. Of those being contested next month, Labour holds 2,737, the Tories 1,426 and the Liberal Democrats 1,139.

A complicated pattern of results is expected. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors of Plymouth University's local elections centre, said about one in five people voted differently in the local and general elections in areas where they were held on the same day in 1997 and 2001. Interpretation of this year's results could be "more a question of who has the best spin doctors rather than who has recorded the best performance."

But there will be some clues about the general election expected in May next year. For example, the Tories will be keen to show signs of recovery in the 36 metropolitan boroughs. Labour will be anxious to head off a backlash over the Iraq war, while the Liberal Democrats will be looking to build on the growing local government base.

As usual, the political parties are playing down their own prospects while accusing their rivals of doing exactly the same. After seven years in power, Labour argues that it is bound to suffer a mid-term protest. The Tories hope for some modest gains and an increase in their share of the vote but will not put a figure on it. The Liberal Democrats are confident of making inroads in Labour's heartlands in the cities, where they will be highlighting their opposition to the Iraq war.

At present, the Tories have 7,566 councillors in England and control 136 authorities, Labour has 6,116 councillors and 80 authorities, the Liberal Democrats 4,290 councillors and 31 authorities, independents 1,151 councillors and two authorities and others 458 councillors and two authorities. No party is in overall control in the remaining councils.

In Wales, Labour has 549 councillors and controls eight authorities, independents have 302 councillors and three authorities, Plaid Cymru has 202 councillors and three authorities, while the Liberal Democrats have 113 councillors, the Tories 69 and others 35.

Here are some of the councils to watch:

BIRMINGHAM

Current composition: Labour 56, Tories 35, Liberal Democrats 23, People's Justice Party 2.

Type of election: All seats up for grabs.

Issues: Labour could lose power for the first time in 18 years. A Tory win would give Michael Howard a much-needed electoral boost. A collapse in the Muslim vote after the Iraq war could harm Labour's prospects.

TRAFFORD

Current composition: Tories 31, Labour 29, Liberal Democrat 3

Type of election: All seats.

Issues: The Tories' number one target and they should take control, allowing them to claim a revival in metropolitan areas, many of which have become virtually "Tory-free zones". New boundaries may help the Tories.

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL

Current composition: Labour 27, Liberal Democrats 21, independent 6, Tories 2, Others 2.

Type of election: One third of seats contested.

Issues: Home ground of John Prescott, who is in charge of local government. The Liberal Democrats are hoping to regain control and may be helped by criticism of the Labour administration by the town hall watchdog, the Audit Commission.

NORWICH

Current composition: Liberal Democrats 30, Labour 14, Others 3, Tories 1.

Type of election: All seats.

Issues: Key battleground between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy's party should hold on, but Labour hopes an all-out election on new boundaries will enable it to mount a fightback.

READING

Current composition: Labour 35, Liberal Democrats 6, Tories 4.

Type of election: All seats.

Issues: Labour should retain control but results will be a pointer to the Tories' performance in the commuter belt, where they need to recover some ground.

CARDIFF

Current composition: Labour 48, Liberal Democrats 18, Tories 5, independent 2, others 2.

Type of election: All seats.

Issues: Labour stronghold but Liberal Democrats will be looking for a strong showing in the wards in the marginal Cardiff Central parliamentary seat, where Labour had a majority of just 659 at the 2001 general election.

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