From the seventies to the noughties the Liberals and then the Liberal Democrats came to occupy the space vacated by the Tories as the opposition to northern Town Hall Labourism. In many cities the Lib Dems actually came to power. Ten years ago I goaded a political commentator into predicting that Labour would lose its majority in Manchester. That didn’t happen and from its peak in the early years of this century, it has been a downhill slide for the Lib Dems.
It became precipitous after the Coalition government was formed in 2010. So going into these local elections Leeds and Liverpool councils have just ten Lib Dem councillors and Manchester nine. They could be all but wiped out as a serious political force in our big cities on May 22nd. That would be very unhealthy for Town Hall politics. With the Tories showing no sign of ending 40 years of impotence in our big cities, the result of a Lib Dem meltdown will be massive Labour majorities and the danger of arrogance and lack of scrutiny that goes with it.
Little attention will be paid to these local elections because, for once, the European Parliament elections held on the same day will command centre stage. That’s partly because of UKIP but also because Labour has already acquired supremacy across most local councils across the North. For four years they have been benefiting from being out of government. Their recovery began in 2010 . Even as Gordon Brown was leaving No 10, Joe Anderson was celebrating Labour taking Liverpool.
So there is less to fight for than usual in our local elections. Nevertheless there will be polls for a third of the seats on the councils that control our great northern conurbations around Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. A third of the seats are also to be contested in the unitary authorities of Blackburn with Darwen and Warrington. A few councils outside our big cities also have elections including West Lancashire, Preston, Burnley and Harrogate.
There are some interesting contests. Trafford rarely lets us down for drama. The only Conservative controlled metropolitan council in the country, the Tories will surely lose their wafer thin grip on power. This will be a disappointment for the recently appointed Sean Anstee, the youngest council leader in the country. West Lancashire can also be expected to fall to Labour. Harrogate may remain a rare patch of blue in the North but the hung councils of Kirklees, Calderdale and Bradford are all being targeted by Labour.
In what is likely to be otherwise a grim night, the torch of Liberalism is likely to remain alight in South Lakeland where Lib Dem President Tim Farron has kept his party in power since 2006. The party is likely to continue holding the balance of power in Pendle where all three parties are almost equal. Stockport is the biggest challenge for the Lib Dems where one net loss could end their power deal with some ratepayers. Labour are the challengers with the Tories continuing to under perform in this leafy part of Greater Manchester. Adding spice to the elections here will be the return of Dave Goddard, the former Lib Dem council leader who was specifically targeted by his former Labour colleagues two years ago.
Overall Labour will find further gains hard to make. The Tories and Lib Dems will be hoping the economic recovery helps them to minimise their losses. All eyes will be on UKIP. They have made no breakthrough in northern Town Halls so far but may benefit from double support as people cast their European and local votes at the same time.
If UKIP do get a substantial number of councillors, it will be interesting to see if they are actually able to actually cope with issues like elderly care and planning.
Next week I’ll be looking at the fascinating European election contests in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West.