Beyond the spin: how to tell who has won the local elections
Conservatives will be watching the rise of UKIP, while Labour pray for a miracle in London
AS THE Boris and Ken show reaches its grand finale in London, it is easy to forget that much of the rest of the country is also going to the polls this week - and on a massive scale. On Thursday some 5,000 council seats will be up for grabs, nearly half of them in England.
It is the nearest Britain gets to America's mid-term polls and, as always, the main point of interest is just how big a drubbing the governing party is going to get.
The benchmark for this year's elections is 2008, which is when these seats were last contested. Back then the Conservatives scored 44 per cent of the vote, while the Lib Dems on 25 per cent pushed Labour into third place with just 24 per cent - the party's worst performance for over 40 years. Set against that, whatever happens on Thursday is likely to be good news for Labour, and bad news for the Coalition parties.
In local elections, however, parties often try to massage expectations down in advance of the polls, with a view to spinning the result their way later. This time round, Labour's declared target is a gain of 350 seats, which they should be able comfortably to exceed, while the Tories are saying they expect to lose 750 councillors, which would be very bad indeed.
The Lib Dems, too, are braced for a dismal night, with as many as 300 of their councillors thought to be in jeopardy. But even after the Coalition's recent disasters, the results are unlikely to be a clean sweep for Labour. When the spinning starts on Friday morning, here are some indicators to look out for.
For Labour, a win for Boris in London will clearly spoil any celebrations Ed Miliband may be planning. Losing control in Glasgow, the party's key Scottish stronghold, would be another big blow.
For the Conservatives, the councils to watch will be those they control in the south of England, where Plymouth, Great Yarmouth, Harlow and Southampton are reckoned to be among those most at risk. If more than a couple of these are lost, it will have been a bad night for David Cameron.
Nick Clegg, meanwhile, will be keeping an anxious eye on those places where the Lib Dems are fighting to stay in control, including Portsmouth, Cambridge and Cheltenham in England, and Cardiff and Swansea in Wales.
How UKIP fares will also be studied closely at Conservative HQ. At the moment it musters just 19 local councillors, but, with its support reaching 10 per cent in recent opinion polls and 800 candidates standing in England, it is beginning to make the Tories seriously nervous. If it succeeds in winning a seat on the Greater London Assembly, as it hopes, all the main parties will be alarmed.
The Tories, in particular, will also be watching what happens with elected mayors - long a pet project of the Camerons. As well as London, the mayors of Salford and Liverpool are also up for re-election. A further 11 cities - Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield - are due to hold referendums on whether to introduce them.
London apart, elected mayors have had a rather bumpy ride so far. In Doncaster, whose mayor represents the fringe English Democrat party, they are even having a vote on whether to abolish the post. In Salford there are fears that a candidate who was once jailed for 14 years for stabbing a man could be elected as an independent. Either outcome would be seen as a setback for a policy that is supposed to be a centrepiece of the Conservatives' localist agenda.
It would also be a pity, because one of the main reasons for introducing mayors is to tilt the balance of local politics more towards personality. At a time when public disaffection with all the main parties and their faceless local machines has never been higher, a few more high-profile contests such as that between Boris and Ken might help to re-engage the public in politics.
Which brings me to the last point to keep an eye on this week: how many bother to vote. Turnout is not as abysmally low in local elections as is often supposed; in 2008 it was 38 per cent. If it is around that level this time it will be a sign that people are still paying attention. If it drops much below, it will be bad news for all the established parties. ·