UK Politics

Local elections: Beyond the Boris and Ken show

Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone
Image caption The fascination with the race to be London mayor will infuriate some local authority candidates

The fate of thousands of candidates will be declared in the coming hours.

But you could be forgiven for thinking there were only two political futures at stake.

So well known are their stories, so well publicised their battle, the Boris and Ken fight for the London mayoralty will dominate the agenda.

A win for the Conservative Boris Johnson will leave Labour people asking whether their man, Ken Livingstone, was up to the job.

Livingstone was, after all, first mayor over a decade ago. Over three decades have passed since he first led the Greater London Council.

If there is defeat for Boris the blame game could be spectacular, as Tories wonder whether the government's post-Budget woes have cost them the London mayoralty.

Defining success

The future of an under-employed Boris - who has out-polled his party in the campaign - would be the talk of the Westminster village.

The Liberal Democrats will want to see their candidate Brian Paddick maintain his share of the vote, and not lose seats on the London Assembly.

Fascination with the London result, which will not be declared until Friday, will no doubt infuriate some battling for control of councils.

In England and Wales the context is very simple. Seats fought here were last contested in 2008 when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, Labour did poorly and the Conservatives did very well.

The expectation is that Labour will now pick up hundreds of seats at the Conservatives' expense, although just how many is hotly disputed.

The Conservative Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said Labour should gain 700 seats "fairly easily". Labour talk of 450 gains across England and Wales.

The debate sounds arcane but will prove important. In short, the politicians are debating what constitutes success or failure for both sides.

It is in the Conservatives' interests to make Labour's task seem easy, and vice versa.

Uphill struggle

Despite a lack of local polling, Labour will anticipate success in the mayoral elections in Salford and Liverpool. There are referendums on whether to establish new directly elected mayors in ten English cities, and one on abolishing a mayoralty.

The Liberal Democrats also expect losses, and say in areas where the local Conservative presence is weak or non-existent they are fighting alone as the coalition party of government, and can expect to feel voters' wrath.

The situation in Scotland is different. Seats here were last contested in 2007. They have been fought using the Single Transferable Vote system for the second time, and these are the first elections to take place separately from the Scottish Parliamentary elections since devolution.

The impact of the SNP's recent success, the Liberal Democrats stand in the polls since taking a place in the Westminster government and what is likely to be a lower turnout can only be guessed at. The battle for control of Glasgow - long Labour territory, now a top SNP target - will be totemic.

All of which will, of course, leave some voters cold.

Historically, fewer than half of us turn out for local elections unless there are parliamentary seats up for grabs on the same day.

The contests matter because those elected to local authorities will have to make decisions about spending taxpayers' money and providing, or cutting, services.

They matters to politicians though not just as a test of their parties' and leaders' popularity, but because once they lose councillors they tend to lose the activists who deliver leaflets and knock on doors.

Once the activists go, getting an MP elected to Parliament can seem the steepest of uphill struggles.

So decisions made by voters about local government will have a big impact on national politics, and the argument about what the results mean will be considerable.