Fixated by Westminster elections, the media usually measure the health of a political party only by the number of MPs it has or the donations it can beg. But there is another possible measure. Local elections are a more sensitive barometer for gauging the ability of parties on the ground to organise themselves, persuade people to stand for them and generally enthuse their activists. If a party is under the weather the number of candidates it stands tends to slip. If its morale is good, its activists confident and motivated, then it can more easily stand and support candidates.
In most parts of England local council elections will take place in two weeks time in parallel with the main action. So what do the nominations tell us? There are 9,283 seats up for grabs this time. If we compare the number of candidates the parties are fielding this time with the last round of equivalent local elections in 2011, we find that the Tories are standing roughly the same number. Whatever happens to the other parties, the Conservatives have been a frighteningly consistent presence since the 1880s and the days of Lord Salisbury. The vast majority of local election voters will, just like their grandparents be presented with a local Tory to dutifully vote for. In fact scores of them have already been returned unopposed in some more rural district councils.
Labour has recovered from its low point at the end of the Blairite years. But it still manages to leave a quarter of seats uncontested, mainly in the south of England. Nonetheless, its candidate numbers are up from last time by 140.
Then there’s the Lib Dems. Where’s the hanky? Their candidate numbers have fallen by a massive 1,282 to just under 4,300, fewer than half the seats available. The slide that began in 2011 after joining with the Tories has accelerated in pace. Depending on the outcome of the general election and whether it dooms us to another dose of Lib Dem Toryism, the dwindling band of Liberal Democrat ‘activists’ may soon be staring into the abyss. From having more candidates than Labour in 2007 the Lib Dems have slipped to the level of Ukip. Indeed, they only just retained their third place and in many parts of England are outnumbered by Ukip and Green candidates.
These two challenger parties have increased their candidate numbers hugely. Ukip has almost matched the Lib Dems, standing nearly 4,100 candidates, while the Greens are contesting 37% of the seats. Both these parties have more than doubled (in the case of Ukip tripled) their candidate numbers this time.
Meanwhile, a third challenger party, largely being studiously ignored by the media, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is mounting the biggest socialist local election intervention for years. Together with the fledgling Left Unity (several of whose 21 candidates are on a joint ticket with TUSC) they are standing 585 candidates, a large increase on the 156 of 2011. As the left shows some signs of life, the collapse of the far right is starkly illuminated by the pathetic 19 BNP candidates across England. In 2007, the BNP stood 267 candidates. It’ll be a long road back for them, having seen their activist and voter base decimated by the counter-attractions of Faragism.
More analysis of the local election nominations to follow. And that’s a