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Labour look north for local election gains

Richard Moss | 17:12 UK time, Thursday, 7 April 2011

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The nominations have closed, the party activists are pounding the streets and the leaflets are being pushed through the doors.

The local elections are upon us, and there's a lot of council seats up this time. Around 700 across 20 councils in the North East and Cumbria.

And there is the potential for some change.

The same seats were. That was in 2007 when we had an unpopular Labour government, and the Conservatives in particular were doing well nationally.

You might then expect there to be a reversal of fortune this time.

Governments traditionally take a kicking in local elections, and as this one is in the middle of the biggest public spending cuts in living memory, there's not a lot to sell.

Labour's position in the polls also looks a lot better than four years ago.

But a look back at the 2007 results might cast some doubt on that.

The Conservatives made some advances in Sunderland but there was precious little progress elsewhere.

Generally in 2007, the Labour vote held up well in the region, so there may be less scope for gains than you might first think.

Nevertheless, Labour lost ground in every local election in the first decade of the 21st Century, so the party will hope it can make up some of that ground and rebuild its local government base.

Some of that might well be at the expense of the Conservatives. The party fought hard to get itself back into good positions in councils such as North Tyneside, Sunderland, Darlington, Allerdale and Stockton.

But this year will be a test of how shallow that recovery was. The party's failure to ever gain a foothold back in Gateshead and Newcastle is evidence of a job not even half-done.

And what of the the Lib Dems?

Traditionally, local elections represent a real opportunity for the party. In the past they have snatched Newcastle and the now abolished City of Durham.

But this time the national polls suggest they are in for an incredibly tough time.

Defending government policies is not something activists are used to - some of they may not even want to this time round. But their party may well pay a heavier price than the Conservatives for being in office.

So where are the key battlegrounds?

The biggest tear-up will certainly be in Newcastle.

Labour needs to win four to remove the Lib Dem majority, six to win control.

As the Lib Dems lost six seats last year even before being in government, it will be a tough fight.

Labour will also be looking to regain overall control in Stockton where they need seven seats. They may well hope to defeat some Tories, but it will also be crucial that they unseat some of the Independents who have thrived in the area over the last few years.

York is another council in Labour's sights. They need to win six seats to end Lib Dem control, a more challenging nine to take over completely.

In Cumbria, Allerdale looks ripe for retaking, with only two gains needed to take control.

Carlisle is another target. Labour need four seats to gain control, but with only a third of the council up for grabs this time, that could be tough.

The party will also be looking to unseat Conservatives in North Tyneside and Lib Dems in Gateshead.

Man enters polling station

The council seats being contested this year were last up in 2007.

For the Conservatives, it will be a matter of protecting what they have got.

Last year, they lost seats in both Sunderland and North Tyneside and they'll want to avoid that this time. The same holds for Carlisle.

The Tories have been keen to talk up their chances in Darlington - a council where they made decent strides four years ago. But in reality again it may be about avoiding losses rather than making major gains.

The Lib Dems will be desperate to defend Newcastle - although they may have to rely on Conservatives voting tactically to keep Labour out. They will hope voters spend longer studying their local record of holding council tax down rather than national policies.

But they will also want to hold onto the councillors they have gained over the last decade in Redcar and Cleveland, especially as they now hold the parliamentary seat.

There will be a couple of intriguing Lib Dem-Conservative to watch for in South Lakeland and Harrogate. It'll be interesting to see if the party suffers as much there as it might do where Labour is its main rival.

The fate of the smaller parties could be an interesting sideshow too.

Many have benefited from protest votes in the past decade - Labour will hope to mop those up this time.

The BNP appears to have retreated. The party is fielding no candidates in Sunderland - a city where they had regularly put up someone in all 26 wards.

UKIP have already seen their council gains in Hartlepool wiped out, and may struggle to get them back.

It may be the Greens who emerge as the most likely smaller party this time. They will hope to benefit from any disillusionment with the Lib Dems.

So too will the Liberal Party who are standing more candidates than they have in the past.

And there are a host of Independents defending their seats and trying to gain ground in other areas.

At the height of the expenses crisis, they may well have been seen as the future, but does the same still hold true now?

And what will be the big issues?

It's hard to get away from cuts, and the threat people may feel to their standard of living.

But voters will have to decide who they blame for that - the Coalition parties, the previous Labour government, or even the council leaderships implementing cuts.

There will always be very local issues too though. The Conservatives and Lib Dems will certainly hope to trade on any disillusionment with the leadership of Labour councils.

And there's one final contest which could get lively - the Middlesbrough mayoral election.

Ray Mallon is going for a third term but will face opposition from Labour's Michael Carr, the Lib Dems Chris Foote-Wood, and Christopher Cole-Nolan for the Conservatives.

Not everything Mr Mallon has done has been popular - there have been some problems with regeneration. But his profile in the town remains as high as ever, and it is surely his election to lose.

* The Politics Show will be looking at the challenges facing the Liberal Democrats and hosting a debate between the main parties in the race for Newcastle City Council on 10 April at 12.15pm.


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