Readers, the results of local by-elections from yesterday were as follows:
Middlesbrough UA, Coulby Newham: Conservative 501 (38.5%, +10.3%), Labour 468 (35.5, -8.2%), Independent 318 (24.1%), Green 32 (2.4%). Conservative gain from Labour.
West Dorset DC, Piddle Valley: Conservative 303 (60.8%, -8.0%), Green 195 (39.2%, +19.4%).
Normally in local by-elections, the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate in a seat held by Labour is overall helpful to Labour, but in places where Labour are dominant and voters seek a credible anti-Labour vote, this is not the case. Combined with the overall competitiveness of Coulby Newham ward, and strong support for Independents, a Conservative gain was not surprising at all. In Piddle Valley, the fact that the Green Party was the only opponent to the Conservatives did not make a real difference, as the Conservatives still held the ward with ease albeit on a considerably reduced majority. This is an important consideration given the use of local progressive alliances to back Greens against Conservatives in such places as Stroud, Gloucestershire, and Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire in the upcoming county council election, and the fact that in some cases Greens are the only opponents against Conservative candidates/independent candidates with small 'c' conservative views in practice (e.g. in Powys).
We are now three weeks away from the English county council and unitarised county council elections of 2017; most are Conservative-controlled but some are under no overall control (NOC) and Durham, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are Labour controlled. The Scottish and Welsh local elections will happen on the same day (more analysis on these later). Many of these councils, like Hertfordshire and Surrey, are unlikely to change hands, but there are many which could.
Which are the county councils to watch this year?
Norfolk. Norfolk is a tale of several places-the progressive and liberal city of Norwich, coastal towns small and large, particularly Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, and the villages across the Norfolk Broads. It is under no overall control but is likely to fall to the Conservatives with UKIP's collapse in the majority of Norfolk. Another interesting feature is whether the Green Party can stop another 'Corbyn effect' rout in the county council elections by Labour, since all four of their seats on Norfolk County Council are in Norwich and only Nelson can be considered safe for the Green Party. The Liberal Democrats will likely see gains or recaptures only in the North Norfolk area, increasing the chances of the Conservatives regaining control further. Prediction: Conservative gain from NOC.
Nottinghamshire. In county council terms, Labour are likely to experience their heaviest losses here this year, as the former coal-mining areas are well and truly turning against them in the long term, not that this will always benefit the Conservatives (it will almost certainly do so in Gedling's divisions, though). A pact between the local Liberal Democrats and Greens in Broxtowe (https://eastmidlands.greenparty.org.uk/news/2017/02/04/green-lib-dem-alliance-in-broxtowe/) is likely to see the first Green Party county councillor elected in Nottinghamshire, although in the new West Bridgford North division (created from the former 2-member West Bridgford Central & South division in recent boundary changes) the Greens have very good chances as well. Prediction: Labour lose to NOC.
Warwickshire: Labour has suffered considerable setbacks in this county since 2013, with the Conservatives significantly increasing their majorities in all the seats where Labour were the clear challengers in 2015 (especially since they had just lost those seats in 2010) and Labour's loss of North Warwickshire council. Furthermore, boundary changes reducing the number of seats from 62 to 57 will indirectly benefit the Conservatives, making a Conservative gain likely in the face of UKIP's fall even with a Liberal Democrat gain or two amongst the divisions of Stratford-on-Avon. Prediction: Conservative gain from NOC.
Gloucestershire: This could see one of the best performances in a county council by the Green Party, especially because in Stroud there appears to be a progressive alliance between the Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats not too dissimilar to the one in Broxtowe. Even with UKIP almost certain to lose all 3 of their county councillors here, it is very unlikely that the Conservatives can gain control of Gloucestershire especially with the Liberal Democrats having held up in key areas even in 2013, irrespective of the ground they can obtain against Labour in the city of Gloucester. Prediction: NOC hold.
Oxfordshire: On paper from analysis of the 2013 results, this looks like a relatively easy Conservative recapture, but the 'One Oxfordshire' proposal, as well as budget cuts, have become decidedly unpopular in most of Oxfordshire, and not only in Oxford either but also growing towns like Banbury and Bicester. Any Liberal Democrat recovery will be less pronounced in the South East than in the South West, and again due to UKIP's fall a few Lib Dem losses could occur in Oxfordshire. The city of Oxford marks a key Labour vs. Green battle just like that in Norwich; the Greens could make one or two gains but there is simultaneously the worrying prospect that Labour could win one or even both Green county council seats there. Prediction: Too close to call.
Somerset: Of the counties in the South West, this has the best chance of being gained by the Liberal Democrats, or at least the best chance of the Liberal Democrats becoming the largest party on the county council. This is also one of only a few counties where UKIP's impending collapse will be of benefit to the Liberal Democrats more than the Conservatives. All three Labour divisions are safe enough for them not to be a factor, although a Green gain somewhere in Somerset is a strong possibility. Prediction: Conservative lose to NOC (with at least an outside chance of Liberal Democrat gain from Conservative).
Cornwall: This is the most politically fickle county in Britain and the only one in 2013 to produce such things as five-way marginal divisions on multiple occasions. Politics is very localised there although the Liberal Democrats have considerable natural strength nonetheless, as do the Conservatives. As in Somerset, a Lib Dem revival is likely, but Cornwall elections are always full of surprises and therefore it is very unlikely the Liberal Democrats can obtain overall control, especially with many Independent councillors restanding and Mebyon Kernow likely to make another improvement. Prediction: NOC hold.
Isle of Wight: Local politics there is in many terms as localised (and therefore less dependent on political party performance) as Cornwall's, and the Green Party has some very good chances due to the high profile of their 2015 candidate for the Isle of Wight, Vix Lowthion, and their much improved organisation in Wight (in 2013, there was only one Green candidate). The aftermath of the debacle with the Isle of Wight's Conservative MP, Andrew Turner, still has not entirely faded away and with the Island Independents coalition not having performed too badly, the Conservatives are unlikely to regain control. Prediction: NOC hold.
In other forecasts, I believe that the Conservatives will regain control of: East Sussex and Lincolnshire, and hold all other county councils they currently hold (except Somerset, see above). I believe that Labour will meanwhile hold Derbyshire and Durham, and Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland will remain in No Overall Control.