Local elections: Labour hopes to gain if it's a dismal night for Lib Dems

While Ed Miliband aims to take the north of England, expectations are low for Nick Clegg's party

Matt Chorley,Jane Merrick
Sunday 29 April 2012 00:58

Ed Miliband is planning a reshuffle of his top team in the wake of what he expects will be a strong night of local election results this week, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

The latest poll puts his party on 40 per cent, giving it an 11 per cent lead over the Conservatives, who are on 29 per cent, their lowest showing since 2004. The Liberal Democrats were at 11 per cent, only one ahead of UKIP. The Labour leader is therefore expected to declare victory in the north of England, but could well lose Glasgow council, make little headway in the south of England, and fail to install Ken Livingstone as London mayor. Nick Clegg's party are bracing themselves for a dismal night.

Mr Miliband is expected to capitalise on any progress Labour make with a shake-up of the Shadow Cabinet. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, is to quit the Shadow Cabinet to run for mayor of Birmingham if, as expected, voters in the city back having a directly elected leader. Friends of Mr Miliband say he would like to use the vacancy to bring his brother, David, back on to the frontbench. However, David is unlikely to agree to the move less than 18 months after losing out to his younger brother in the Labour leadership contest. A friend of David Miliband said the situation was still "very raw".

Instead, there is a possible move for shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander to take over policy from Mr Byrne, who critics inside the party say has made little progress. A party source said: "We need to go further and faster, step things up a gear." Mr Alexander, one of the party's prominent intellectuals, will hit the ground running on policy, say insiders.

Labour strategists have sought to dampen expectations before Thursday's poll, when elections are held for 128 English councils, all 32 in Scotland and 21 of the 22 Welsh local authorities. While sources close to the party's campaign have said it expects 200 to 300, some polling experts say Mr Miliband must make net gains of at least 700 seats to back up his recent lead in opinion polls.

The battle to become London Mayor, a straight fight between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, is a major test for both Mr Miliband and David Cameron. Whoever emerges victorious will hope it is a predictor of the 2015 general election.

Professor Colin Rallings of Plymouth University said: "This is a very important test for Ed Miliband. Can he get Labour supporters to the ballot box?" In recent days the Labour campaign has focused on claims to have caught Lib Dems "yellow-handed... saying different things to different people in different parts of the country".

It is likely to be another grim night for the Lib Dems, who are contesting 70 per cent of the council seats up for grabs. "The Lib Dems were absolutely slaughtered by Labour last year and they go into these elections on the same basis," said Professor Rallings.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday this month, the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said he thought the party was entering a "new phase" and voters were "starting to listen to us". However, his party has remained stubbornly stuck on under 10 per cent in the opinion polls, and policy wins have been overshadowed by the rows and scandals which have engulfed the coalition in recent weeks.

The Lib Dems are expected to drop below 3,000 councillors for the first time since 1986, with predictions of worse to come unless they can dramatically change their electoral fortunes.

Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde has warned repeated hammerings in local elections could threaten the party's entire activist base. "If the party were to continue to perform at this level in future rounds of local elections in this Parliament, most of the local electoral progress it has achieved during the past 30 years – and thus perhaps the activist base that it helped develop – would be wiped out. The party's continued ability to challenge the Conservative-Labour hegemony would be seriously compromised."

Last year the Tories won more council seats than Labour in the south of England, a key battleground come the next general election. As the party took votes from the Lib Dems last year, Labour strategists believe they will also make gains from the Tories this time round, particularly in key seats such as Harlow, Derby and Birmingham. The Labour campaign has been cast as a "referendum on David Cameron's government", claiming last month's Budget gave a tax cut to millionaires while taxing families and pensioners more.

New vision of grassroots politics

Politicians have struggled to persuade British voters to come out and vote in recent years, as apathy has taken hold of politics at a local and national level.

But Britain's political parties have turned to a new wave of foreign-born candidates in an attempt to breathe new life into town halls across the country.

While turnout in local elections has plummeted to barely 40 per cent over the past decade, scores of "foreigners" are trying to inspire British-born voters into action – even if that is limited to going to a polling-station and voting.

The experiences of candidates who were not born, or did not grow up in the UK, suggest that their politics have been influenced and moulded by their experiences in their home countries.

Shabbar Jaffri, an SNP candidate in Glasgow, said: "What I have noticed among the SNP candidates is a certain amount of energy and vibrancy, and I am a part of that. And that is what is not found in Pakistan."

Maria Aretoulaki, standing for the Pirate Party in Manchester, said she had been surprised by low turnouts – par- ticularly compared to her native Greece.

Emily Short and William Kennedy

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