Testing times for parties in North West elections

On 4 May 2007, the Conservative Party hired a helicopter to allow David Cameron to savour a victory lap around the North West.

In a day of celebration, Mr Cameron visited councils including Chester, Blackpool and High Peak.

All three were symbolic gains for the Tories and represented the party's rediscovered success in the North.

Four years on, those same seats and councils are again up for election. But this time expectations are very different.

Stern test for Conservatives

The Conservatives control more councils than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined.

But that also means they have more to lose.

2011 is a much sterner test for the Tories.

The party is fighting to maintain control of councils including Chorley, Rossendale and West Lancashire.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Many North West seats hang in the balance as no party has a majority

They unexpectedly lost a majority in Bury last year, partly due to the higher turnout at the general election.

But the Tories maintain minority control and have introduced a controversial plan to review all services with the possibility of some privatisation.

How will that affect the Tory plan to win Bury back?

Of course, the cuts to council services will be a dominant theme.

We have already seen some of the anger that the severe cuts introduced by the coalition government have provoked.

But this is also an opportunity for the supporters of the cuts programme to make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Hanging in the balance

Even though the Conservatives are fighting from a strong electoral base, most councils in the region are under No Overall Control: in other words no party has a majority.

That's largely because Labour lost them in recent years. Now there's a chance to win them back.

Labour would be hopeful of taking Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Hyndburn, Oldham and Warrington.

Rochdale and Wirral are more distant possibilities.

And, of course, Labour would love to win Blackpool back.

Lib Dem challenges

As for the Liberal Democrats, they had a poor result in 2007.

That may prove a blessing if it disguises the extent of expected losses in May.

In fact, the party only runs two councils in the North West - Stockport and the South Lakes.

Both look safe, unlike so many individual councillors.

The threat to the Liberal Democrats is an opportunity for the smaller parties. Protest voters are hardly going to vote for Nick Clegg.

Other parties could gain

But maybe they will turn to the Greens instead.

UKIP is also poised to prosper. The party tells me that it is fielding a record number of candidates in the North West, about 165.

UKIP might also benefit from recent splits within the British National Party.

The BNP appears to be a much weakened electoral force, only standing about 50 council candidates.

I'm often asked whether people vote on national or local issues. On this occasion the two coincide, with the cuts agenda dominating national and local politics.

People in the North West will be deciding who they most trust to see that difficult programme through.