Election 2011: Crunching the numbers in the South West

Just before the General Election of 2001 I concluded an interview with one candidate by asking, "Do you think you're going to win?"

With disarming candour - and a hollow laugh - he replied: "I shouldn't think so, no."

I don't need to tell you that this was an unusual departure from the standard script. In these circumstances candidates generally don spectacles with the thickest, rosiest-tinted lenses the optician can be persuaded to dispense.

But this extravagant show of optimism for the camera doesn't, of course, mean our political classes are all Micawbers and Panglosses to a man.

One thing that gives an insight into what the parties really think they might be able to achieve is the number of candidates they stand in a given election.

This is to some extent based on historical performance. An electorally successful party, defending a large number of seats, will naturally field a lot of candidates.

Equally a gung-ho attitude, coupled with a passionate cause, can lead complete outsiders to mobilise their foot soldiers in droves - even if more in hope than expectation.

But it's still fair to say the parties will generally make carefully calculated decisions about where and when to stand, not least because an election campaign can sap scarce resources.

Nominations have now closed for the 5 May local elections.

In the BBC South West area the Conservatives are contesting 90.6% of all seats - that's more than anybody else and a slight increase on last time.

The Liberal Democrats are fighting 74% of the available seats, which is a little bit down on the previous set of comparable elections.

Labour is contesting just 36.5% of the region's seats. This, however, represents a substantial increase on their showing in 2007. In fact the number of Labour candidates has nearly doubled - from 116 to 198.

Precisely where these additional troops are offering their services to the electorate is also illuminating. Far outside their traditional comfort zone and deep into rural Conservative/Lib Dem heartlands is the answer.

So, in Mid Devon the number of Labour candidates has shot from none to 15; in West Devon from none to 10; in North Devon from one to 10; and in Teignbridge from five to 12. And in Torbay - hardly rural but, to date, hardly Labour either - the number has ballooned from 10 to 18.

Meanwhile the Green Party has more than doubled its slate of candidates: 117 as opposed to 65 in 2007. There's a marked increase in Exeter (13 as opposed to four in 2007) which means everybody voting there will - at the very least - get a choice between the three largest parties and the Greens.

UKIP is fielding slightly fewer candidates this time, down from 78 to 63. But in Plymouth - previously one of UKIP's most fertile recruiting grounds - the number has shot up from eight to 17.

It's a very different story in Torbay, though, despite the fact that this is another area where the party has tended to notch up some of its best results. Nineteen-strong in 2007, UKIP's election hopefuls on the English Riviera have dwindled to just four this time.

It's a foregone conclusion that the once mighty Liberal Party (the old Liberals, that is, who refused to join forces with the SDP to form what eventually became the Liberal Democrats) will soon be an even smaller force in the region's local government than it is now. There are currently three Liberal councillors on Exeter City Council. Two of those seats are up for re-election in May and only one candidate is standing - that's down from five in 2007.

Another distinctive element in the West Country political tradition will be hoping to keep the torch burning beyond May 5. One hundred and sixty two Independent candidates are contesting seats - a slight increase on the 156 who stood last time.