Much has already been written about the prospects of Labour and the Conservatives in the 2018 local elections. But instead of continuing that narrative, I am going to focus upon the what this round of elections could mean for the three smaller parties of England; the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens.
The Liberal Democrats, so far unable to break through in the national polls, face another potentially hostile cycle of elections. With no elections in their former West Country heartlands, they are also defending six of the eight councils they run. Sutton, run by the Lib Dems since 1990, has all-up elections like the rest of London. Though they have a sizeable majority, it is likely to be reduced for several reasons like waste collection issues and their pro-remain stance, which may cost them dearly in one of the few Leave-voting London boroughs. The Lib Dems are however, generally on the offensive in London. Wiped out in many areas in 2014, there will be few councils turning gold in May but their success will instead be measured by how many new councillors they can get across the city. These numbers are unlikely to be huge, but softly-softly is increasingly the tone of Lib Dem recovery.
Notable exceptions to this are Kingston and Richmond-upon-Thames. Between them these two boroughs cover three constituencies where the Lib Dems performed strongly in the General Election last year; Kingston and Surbiton which returned Ed Davey to Parliament, Richmond Park where Sarah Olney lost out by only 44 votes, and Twickenham which returned Vince Cable with a majority of nearly ten thousand. On a good night the Lib Dems will take both of these, but the arithmetic makes taking just Kingston the more likely scenario.
Outside London, Lib Dem ground is even less fertile. It is unlikely that they will lose any of their councils, but South Lakeland will be one to watch after Tim Farron’s majority was decimated last year. Maidstone and Winchester are potential gains if they can push the Tories hard enough, but everywhere else Lib Dem success will be measured in councillors rather than councils. Their sole councillor (and the only opposition) in Manchester will be hoping for reinforcements, but it will again be tough against the apparently-unassailable Fortress Labour. It is a similar story in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and other Labour areas. Of the big cities, only Sheffield offers truly fertile ground due to the Labour Council’s complete mismanagement of ‘Treegate’.
The Lib Dems are talking up their chances of taking control of Hull and Stockport, and if they did so this would indicate a very good night for them. Similarly, regaining even minority control of councils such as Portsmouth and Colchester would not be impossible, but remains unlikely. However, losses here would probably be accepted if they were mirrored by gains in areas where they performed well last year such as Oxford.
Finally, one of the few genuinely three-way marginals in the country, Watford, has both council and mayoral elections. The Lib Dems control the council, having wiped out the Conservatives in 2016, but Labour overtook them in the corresponding constituency last year. Holding their majority should not be too difficult but retaining the mayoralty would be a fantastic night for Watford Liberal Democrats.
While the Liberal Democrats have a mixed bag, UKIP’s electoral map looks very unfavourable. Thought they have now stabilised in the polls, they have stabilised around 3%, a stark drop from their high point of 17% last time most of these seats were contested. Increasingly seen as an irrelevant laughing stock, the UKIP seats will still have an important role to play in these elections. The biggest question about them will be, where are those seats going to go?
The established wisdom was that UKIP votes would go to the Conservatives, but the General Election showed that as many returned to Labour. The protest element of UKIP is most likely to go to Labour, especially in the cities, but could well go to the Conservatives in areas where a Labour council is being particularly badly run. Similarly, we should not be surprised if a good number of UKIP votes went to the Lib Dems. On paper, given their diametrically opposed positions on Brexit, this should not happen, but many UKIP voters came from the Lib Dems and we should not rule out many of them going back, especially in areas which are Conservative run and have only a small Labour presence.
Another problem UKIP now faces are the various splinters which have broken off from it. For Britain and the Democrats and Veterans have pulled sitting councillors and candidates away from UKIP, while many UKIP groups have defected en masse. It is unlikely that these groups, such as those now on Thurrock and council, will thrive while being squeezed between the Conservatives and Labour.
Finally, the Greens. Due to the rise of Corbyn, it will be a good night for the Greens if they can break even. Though there is some prospect of advance in London, especially in areas like Islington they are the opposition, they will be bracing for losses in other areas. They may well take losses in Oxford and Sheffield, while gains elsewhere seem like slim pickings.
In conclusion, it doesn’t look like our increasingly two-party dominated political landscape will be changing this year. The hammering of the coalition years has reduced the Liberal Democrats to a few areas of strength and while their membership and donations are at record heights, so far a breakthrough hasn’t materialised. Modest gains will be the order of the day. Conversely, any gains for the Greens will constitute an excellent night, while for UKIP anything short of complete annihilation will be a victory.