Looking for the local elections? Then head for Carlisle

Knights jousting at Carlisle Castle
Image caption Two knights joust at Carlisle Castle but the real battle in the city is between Labour and Conservatives

Activists may be pounding the streets up and down the country ahead of the local elections but some areas are getting more attention than others.

The North East has seen neither hide nor hair of a government minister or shadow cabinet member yet.

But across the Pennines in Carlisle, the city has been visited by both David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

I understand more high-profile visitors are due in the final week of campaigning too.

High hopes

It's not hard to see why.

It's a council that Labour has high hopes of winning.

It lost control of it to the Conservatives in 1999. Since 2003, it's been hung, with the Tories running it with the help of the Lib Dems in recent years.

Labour need three seats to take control though, and on last year's results the party should get over the line.

But of course you can't leave anything to chance, and Ed Miliband showed up on his party's local election launch tour to try and boost the campaign.

The Tories though would love to stop a Labour triumph, particularly as Carlisle is a marginal parliamentary seat.

In 2010, Conservative candidate John Stevenson took a seat that had been represented by Labour MPs since 1964.

It was hardly surprising then that the PM should pop up there during the campaign too.

In fact this was his sixth visit to the city since 2005.

That shows how important Carlisle is to the Conservatives. With half an eye on 2015, it can ill afford to see support slipping away there.

Northern success

Of course you could argue that it won't mean that much if Labour do win control. The Carlisle parliamentary seat remained in Labour hands in 2001 and 2005 despite them being out of power in the city council.

Image caption Carlisle's Castle looms over a city that's at the heart of the local election campaign

But with northern Conservative success stories few and far between, the loss of Carlisle would be another blow to the Tories' national credentials.

Where does that leave the campaign in the rest of the North East and Cumbria though?

I'm sure local activists have been taking the campaign seriously, but the lack of high-profile visitors suggest there's not much at stake in the view of the party leaderships.

And it's fair to say in some areas campaigning has been low-key.

Privately, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are resigned to losing more seats across Tyneside and Wearside with Labour gains likely.

The Tories made good progress in Sunderland and North Tyneside during the Blair and Brown years, but all that seems to be going into reverse at the moment with Labour likely to entrench their majorities in the council chamber.

The Conservatives are also fighting to hang on to their last remaining councillor in South Tyneside. They have not had a councillor in Newcastle for 20 years and the city and neighbouring Gateshead look likely to remain Tory-free zones.

The Lib Dems are downbeat too. They lost control of Newcastle to Labour last year and may endure more losses in 2012, both there and in Gateshead. The party won't field any candidates in South Tyneside, and it could lose its last remaining councillor in Sunderland.

Independent threat

Image caption Every council seat is up for grabs in Hartlepool because of boundary changes

The more intriguing contest is in Hartlepool. A redrawing of council boundaries means the whole authority is up.

Labour had a majority in the previous council chamber, and that should remain the case, but the threat could come from independents Putting Hartlepool First rather than the Lib Dems and Conservatives.

For the coalition parties the more fruitful territory will be in the areas where they are fighting each other rather than Labour.

The Lib Dems will continue to control South Lakeland but the Conservatives will hope they can eat into their majority.

The reverse is true in Harrogate where the Lib Dems have slipped back in recent years and the Conservatives have taken control. The Tories will be hoping to take some more Lib Dem scalps.

Of the smaller parties, the Greens have the strongest field of candidates. UKIP have 29 candidates but will hope to capitalise on some healthy national opinion poll ratings.

The BNP though appears to be a much-weakened force with only 12 candidates across the region. They aren't fielding anyone in Sunderland - a city they targeted heavily in the noughties.

And the Liberals remain alive and well in South Tyneside, alongside a series of other independents.

But you can bet Labour and Conservative eyes will be most firmly focused on the result in Carlisle on the night of 3 May.

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