England & Wales

Local elections 2012: predicting the 50 councils to watch

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Ahead of this year’s local government elections and mayoral referendums we have collated data on authorities that details:

  • who currently controls the council
  • how many seats each party has in each council
  • how many seats are being contested on 3 May

We have also identified the top 50 councils where political control could change. Last year our ’50 councils to watch’ became the definitive guide to the marginal battleground across local government and was used throughout the media.

This data has then been placed into a Google Fusion Table (above)*. 

We will be live tweeting through the night as the results start to arrive. We will be using the #3may hashtag. We will also be sending out hourly email updates – you can sign up to these here. An updated version of the map will be produced soon after.

Our top 50 starts with an introduction from Andy Sawford, explaining the political context and expected swing, then we predict the 9 unitaries, 8 mets and 20 Districts in England to watch, along with 7 in Scotland and 6 in Wales.

Previewing the top 50

On May the 3rd elections will take place in 180 councils across the country, with 5000 seats up for grabs.  In 2008, when most of these seats were last contested, the Conservatives won big.  In what was their best showing since the 1970s, they won a swing of 12%, gaining more than 250 seats, mostly from Labour.  Their national vote share was 44% to 24% for Labour and 23% for the Lib Dems.  Labour lost over 300 seats, while the Lib Dems gained 30.   

This time around Labour is currently ten points ahead in the national opinion polls.  If this poll lead were translated at the ballot box it would be a 14% Conservative to Labour swing.   Last year Labour achieved a swing of 10% so outperforming this would be seen as a good result for Ed Miliband’s party.  In terms of seat numbers, Labour should expect to pick up 300 seats, repeating last years performance and cancelling out their losses of four years ago.  This will be the benchmark that Labour publicly sets itself as they seek to manage expectations

Last year the Conservative losses to Labour were offset by gains from the Lib Dems.  In what many saw as a good result for the governing party pushing through austerity measures, they managed to make small net gains and win control of some councils.    This year their best hopes are again in contests with the Liberal Democrats.  For the Lib Dems they will hope that whilst a national swing against them is predicted, they can defy this in their local council heartlands.  

The fortunes of all parties are judged of course not only on the actual results, but also against the expectations game.  Over the next month leading up to the election all parties will be seeking to simultaneously motivate their troops and sound confident whilst lowering the benchmark against which their performance will be judged.  The Bradford West by-election shows how unpredictable elections can be, and how despite all the Westminster chatter, local factors really do matter.

In addition to our ‘councils to watch’, keep an eye out for the Mayoral referendums in the large English cities, and actual Mayoral elections in Liverpool and Salford.  

If you think we’ve missed a ‘council to watch’ please tell us through @LGiU.  If you spot an error, please forgive us, we have pieced together the data from a range of sources and the information is accurate to the best of our knowledge.  If you would like to be one of our Count Correspondents, sending us updates from the key election counts, we’d love to hear from you.  

‘50 councils to watch’

We have identified 9 unitary councils, 8 mets, and 20 districts in England to watch, along with 7 councils in Scotland and 6 in Wales.  

English unitary councils

Derby:  A key battleground for all three main parties, the Conservatives (16 seats) and Lib Dems (12 seats) run the council in coalition but Labour is the largest party (22 seats). Labour will be targetting gains of 4 seats to take control but only a third of council seats are up for election.   With the background of the controversial Bombardier decision and the prospects for parliamentary marginals, especially following the Boundary Review, this is one to watch.  

Milton Keynes:  We accurately predicted last year that the Conservatives would win enough seats to form a minority administration.   This year the Conservatives could win outright control but they need net gains of 5 seats, with only a third of seats up for election this time.

North East Lincolnshire:  Currently a minority Labour administration 19 seats), the local Conservatives (14 seats) and Lib Dems (9 seats) have chosen not to join up to outvote Labour here.  The 12 seats up for election this time are evenly split, 4 each for the three main parties.  This gives Labour a good chance to gain the three seats they need to take control. 

Plymouth: This is a straight two way fight between the ruling Conservatives (32 seats) and Labour (25 seats), who are attempting to gain a handful of seats to win control.  This contest is important for both parties to see how they are faring head to head, with the added spice that Plymouth is home to two parliamentary marginals.  

Portsmouth:  The Lib Dems (23 seats) are in control here but a net gain of four seats by Conservatives  (17) would give them the upper hand.  Not all council results go with the national swing and some areas buck the trend – the Lib Dems are hoping this will be one of them.  

Reading: Labour run a minority administration and will hope to strengthen their position by making the 4 gains they need for an outright majority.  They will need to watch out for the Greens who are also targetting gains.  

Southampton:  The Conservatives (26 seats) have held a slim majority here and Labour (19 seats) would need a net gain of six seats to take snatch control, which seems a tall order when only a third of the council is up for election.  The Lib Dems have 3 seats. 

Thurrock: This is a tight two way fight between Conservatives and Labour, with Labour currently having the upper hand with 24 seats to the Conservatives 22.    This is one of Labour’s top parliamentary targets and Ed Miliband’s office will be watching this result, not least because Miliband aide Polly Billington is Labour’s parliamentary candidate

Swindon:  Conservatives have a commanding lead here but the council has ‘all out elections’ and local sources on both sides predict Labour gains.  If Labour gained Swindon it would mean they were having a particularly good night.   

Metropolitan Authorities

Birmingham:   The current make up of the council is 56 Lab, 39 Con, 24 Lib Dem and 1 other.  Labour launched their local election campaign here and are hoping to build on the gains they made last year and win control of the council from the coalition parties.  The Mayoral referendum result will be one to watch too as it is widely expected to be a Yes vote. 

Calderdale:  The Conservatives are the largest party with 21 seats and would need five net gains to take control and oust the Labour / Lib Dem coalition, who have 13 seats each.   With only a third of seats up for election the council will probably remain hung.  

Kirklees:  Labour has a vulnerable minority administration here but the Conservatives have been losing ground at recent elections so Labour will hope to make gains.  The balance is Lab 27, Con 21, LD 14, Green 4, others 3.  

Liverpool:  The Lib Dem collapse in Liverpool was one of the big stories of the 2011 local elections and Nick Clegg’s party will be watching nervously to see if there are further losses this year.  One of the few Lib Dem councillors to hold on last year, Richard Kemp, will be flying his parties flag in the Mayoral election against current council Leader, Labour’s Joe Anderson, who is favourite to win.  

Rochdale:  Labour has a minority administration and will hope to win an outright majority this time by gaining two seats. 

Stockport:  The Lib Dems have run the council for a long time but they now have a minority administration and will have to campaign hard to hold on.  The current balance is LD 30, Lab 18, Con 11, Residents 3. 

Walsall:  Conservatives and Labour have 27 seats each but the Conservatives run the council with the support of minor parties.  This is a major battleground in the Midlands and Labour will be hoping for a swing back towards them this time.  

Wirral:  Labour have the most seats here but after a difficult period of minority rule the Conservatives have recently taken charge with Lib Dem support, making this a very unpredictable election which will be fought on local lines as much as national issues.  

District Councils

Burnley:  Currently a minority Lib Dem administration, this is a key Labour and Lib Dem battleground.  The current balance is 21 LD to 18 Labour, 5 Conservatives and 1 BNP.  

Cambridge:  This is a Lib Dem and Labour battleground, where the Lib Dems hold 25 seats to Labours 14.  With only a third of councils up for election the Lib Dems will hold on to power but the results here will be closely watched, particularly as the Lib Dems hold the parliamentary seat in what is a real three-way marginal.  

Cannock Chase: A Labour minority administration currently, they will be trying to win 4 seats to gain a majority. 

Carlisle:  The Conservatives (22 seats) are in minority control with the support of the Lib Dems (5 seats).  Labour are the largest party with 24 seats and could gain control if there is a swing to them.

Cheltenham:  The Lib Dems hold 25 of the 40 seats, but with half of the seats up for election this May, a Conservative gain cannot be ruled out.  If this happened it would signal a bad night for the Lib Dems.  

Chorley:  The council is finely balanced between Labour and the Conservatives, but the Tories currently run the council with Lib Dem support.   Labour and the Tories will both be vying to win a clear majority this time.  

Colchester:  The Lib Dems have a two seat advantage over the Conservatives here and will be hoping to hold on to power.  It has been a traditional Lib Dem stronghold and they hold the local parliamentary seat so this is a key contest.  

Exeter:  The council is a three way contest and has been hung for years.  There is currently an all party administration but Labour will have designs on gaining the few seats they need to take control.

Forest of Dean:  Currently a Conservative minority administration, the Tories will hope to gain outright control, although with only a third of the seats up this time the council could well remain hung.

Great Yarmouth:  This is a straight two way fight between Labour and the Conservatives, with Labour needing to gain 4 seats to snatch control from the Conservatives.  

Harlow:  Another of the few areas in the East of England where Labour is competitive, the Conservatives currently hold the council with a vulnerable 1 seat majority.  

Lincoln:  The political balance in Lincoln is on a knife edge between Labour and Conservatives.  The outcome this time has extra significance as this is now a top parliamentary marginal. 

Mole Valley:  The Lib Dems are the largest party but the Conservatives run the council with Independent support.  Conservatives will be aiming for outright control.  

Newcastle-under-Lyme:  A Conservative and Lib Dem administration could be vulnerable to Labour who are already the largest party.  

Nuneaton and Bedworth:  Labour currently run this on the Mayor’s casting vote and look set to gain outright control this time. 

Pendle:  Currently in no overall control the council is finely balanced between the three main parties and the outcome is difficult to predict.  

Rossendale:  A Labour minority administration at present, they will be hoping to win a majority

Stroud:  The Conservatives have a minority administration and this may continue, but the other interest here is the relative strength of the Greens who currently have 6 councillors and will be looking to make gains.

Weymouth and Portland:  Currently an all party administration, the Conservatives are the largest party and the only one who could take control with just a third of the seats being contested this time.  

Winchester:  This is a hotly contested Lib Dem and Conservative battleground where the Lib Dems and Conservatives each have 27 seats. Given the national polls, the Conservatives will hope to gain outright control. 


Scottish local government uses a PR system for local elections which leaves most councils   hung.  There are an exotic range of combinations in the administrations across Scotland which are certain to change significantly after May’s elections.   The SNP is widely expected to make gains against all parties.  Labour will hope that they can fend of the SNP surge and do well against the Conservatives and Lib Dems.

Aberdeenshire:  Currently a Lib Dem and Conservative administration, the SNP are likely to become the largest party.

Dundee:  The SNP need to gain 1 seat to take control

Falkirk:  In an unusual coalition Labour works with the Conservatives to run the council.  This will be an SNP target to win control.  

Glasgow:  Labour’s dominance in Glasgow is under threat, with the SNP hopeful of making significant gains.  This is likely to be the most watched contest of the night in Scotland.

Perth and Kinross:  This is an SNP target where they need to gain 3 seats to take control.  

Renfrewshire:  A minority SNP administration relies on Lib Dem support.  Could they win outright control or could Labour – currently the largest party – snatch the initiative.

South Ayrshire:  Conservatives have been in the driving seat of a minority administration but the SNP are challenging this time


It could be Labour’s night in Wales where they will hope to win back many of the 100 seats they lost when these seats were last contested in 2008. 

Bridgend:  Labour would take overall control with net gains of just 1 seat.  

Caerphilly:  A tight two way fight between Labour and Plaid, Labour will be hoping to wrest control from the minority Plaid / Independent administration.

Cardiff:  The Lib Dems are braced for losses and Labour expects a comeback.  The Conservatives did will in the capital four years ago and will be looking to hold on to the seats they gained.  

Conwy:  Presents an opportunity for the Conservatives to emerge as the lead partner in a new coalition.  They are currently much the largest party but are kept out of power by a coalition of the other parties.

Newport:  Traditionally a strong Labour area they lost this council last time around and will be hoping to win back control from the Conservative / Lib Dem minority administration

Swansea:  The Lib Dems have ruled here with the support of the large group of Independents but Labour, currently the largest party, will be looking for gains.

* Information is correct to the best of our knowledge and mapped to the best of our ability – but because of things like by-elections, and the lack of any official open data source, we cannot be certain that figures are 100% correct. If you do spot any inaccuracies, please do let us know.