After Eastleigh, the council elections in England and Wales on Thursday are a chance for Ukip to shake up the Conservatives in their heartlands, writes Lewis Baston.
These seats were last contested in June 2009, when the Labour government was deeply unpopular and the whole political system was dominated by the expenses scandal.
The results were a Tory landslide – they won 26 out of the 27 shire counties with only Cumbria withstanding the blue tide – but the vote for all the parties was eroded by a strong vote for parties other than the big three.
The Conservatives, therefore, have nowhere to go but down in terms of seats and control of councils. Labour should be able to gain control of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, although regaining Lancashire and Staffordshire, which were also lost to the Tories in 2009, is a bit more of a challenge.
The Liberal Democrats will be hoping to compensate likely losses to Labour by picking up some Conservative seats and possibly a council or two in the south west – Somerset most likely, which would be good news for a party which has gained little satisfaction in any round of local elections since 2008.
Everyone should be able to cherry-pick some favourable outcomes on Friday.
Other battlegrounds where the Conservatives might lose to no overall control include Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. In general, though, these elections are taking place in the ancestral Tory shires and suburbs of England and there is a limit to how badly the Conservatives can do even if the pendulum swings hard towards Labour.
For the Conservatives to lose a lot of ground there needs to be a pincer movement – a swing to Labour in the marginal seats plus a slump in normally safe seats. This is what happened when the Conservatives sustained heavy losses in 1993 – the Lib Dems surged in seats that were previously Tory heartlands.
With Lib Dem support in the national polls at a low level (although they always do better in local elections than national polls), the threat this time comes from Ukip, who have advanced steadily in the polls and secured some creditable results in by-elections. Ukip could be the surprise package of the 2013 local elections.
The problem for Ukip is that the first-past-the-post electoral system for English and Welsh councils, and Westminster, rewards parties that can concentrate their support in localised hot-spots where they can gain seats.
Ukip did reasonably well in June 2009, with about 8 per cent support in the national polls (compared to 14 per cent now), and they tended to get around 15 per cent of the vote across a lot of southern England.
Ukip could do 10 percentage points better in 2013 but still not win many more seats: 25 per cent of the vote across the board wins a party no more councillors than getting 15 per cent.
Ukip is running far more candidates in 2009, so the additional risk is that its support will level up in previously weak areas but not build on strength. The 2013 elections are a test of whether Ukip has mastered the art of targeting seats in council elections, or whether the party will once again secure a high vote but not end up with many elected representatives.
Ukip’s significance might instead be in tipping the balance between the larger parties. Their support comes mainly from former Conservative voters (although there were several places in 2009 when they did well against Labour, including Newcastle-under-Lyme and Great Yarmouth).
Slippage from Tory to Ukip could enable Labour and the Liberal Democrats to win seats – the Lib Dems particularly in the south west and south east, and Labour in the east of England and the Midlands.
What counts as success or failure for the parties? For the Lib Dems, if their vote is above their national equivalent in 2012 (15 per cent), and if they gain Somerset, that would be modestly satisfying.
The 2013 elections are a test of whether Ukip has mastered the art of targeting seats in council elections.
The counties are a challenging battleground for Labour – if they gain both Lancashire and Staffordshire, and end up ahead in the voting tallies in southern and midland marginals like Northampton North, Nuneaton and Crawley, they can be reasonably happy.
Both they and the Conservatives have engaged in expectations management (200 net gains would be a poor result for Labour, while the Conservatives cannot possibly be expecting to lose 800 as their sources claimed to the Sun on Tuesday).
A Tory success would involve not losing councils like Devon and Staffordshire and keeping seat losses to around 300. But they would also be relieved if the UKIP wave falls short of overcoming their defences. Everyone should be able to cherry-pick some favourable outcomes on Friday.
Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit