With an unpopular Government, a new Prime Minister in waiting, a resurgent Conservative Party, the Lib Dems struggling under an ineffective leader and the SNP on the brink of power, these elections promise to be of particular interest.
We should start in Scotland, where the likely victory for the SNP in the Parliamentary elections could represent the next step towards independence (and for those of us watching from south of the border, a step towards permanent Tory domination in England).
The SNP has consistently held its lead in the face of an increasingly frantic Labour campaign. Was it wise for Labour to allow Blair and Brown to lead the negative attacks on the SNP and the prospects for an independent Scotland? A Scotsman poll of polls this week predicted the SNP to be the largest party with 46 seats, still some 19 seats short of what is needed to form a majority.
The most interesting contest will be in Gordon, where Alex Salmond himself is seeking election. Held continuously by the Lib Dems since 1983, currently with a 4,000 majority, it is 18th on the SNP hit list.
The SNP didn’t even manage second place last time, and Salmond will have to outperform the current polls to win this seat (something this charismatic politician is surely capable of doing?).
If Salmond fails to win Gordon, he has a second chance of election as he tops the SNP north-east regional list. But as the SNP already holds four of the nine regional seats, and could win two more – Aberdeen Central and Dundee West – with just a small swing from Labour, the party is unlikely to gain any additional regional seats. So it is possible that the SNP could be the largest party in the new Parliament, but without their leader at their helm!
Other key SNP targets include Glasgow Govan, where Nicola Sturgeon the SNP deputy leader is seeking to overturn a 1,200 Labour majority; David Steel’s old seat, Tweedale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, which has a Lib Dem majority of 538; and Galloway and Upper Nithsdale with a Tory majority of 99. The SNP will also expect a repeat of the 2005 Westminster victory over Labour in the Western Isles. A key role could be played by the Greens, who currently hold seven seats. Their poll rating is the most volatile of any party, ranging from 3% to 10%. The better they do, the fewer seats the SNP is likely to win. Lastly, with the local council elections contested for the first time on a proportional representation system, the political map of Scotland is likely to be completely rewritten.
In England, the Tories are riding high in the polls with around 36% of the vote, but they would hope to be attracting nearer 40% and 600+ seats to be on target for a victory at the next general election. They will certainly win swathes of council seats in the South from Labour and the Lib Dems. Some key Tory targets include Dartford, Dover, Maidstone, Gravesham (typical Kent seats that they will need to win at the next general election), Braintree, Brighton, Ipswich and Labour-controlled Plymouth. They will expect to advance in the Midlands, perhaps winning Rugby and Tewkesbury, and making gains in towns like Derby. A bigger challenge for the Tories will be to make gains in the north, where there is very little evidence of a Cameron-led revival. Targets here include Barrow-in-Furness and Bury (and other towns in East Lancashire/West Yorkshire), whilst they will also hope to make some symbolic gains in the northern towns where they currently have no representation, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and York.
In the South and Midlands, the Lib Dems will just be looking to hold off the Conservative challenge by keeping control of South Norfolk and Bournemouth, whilst preventing the Tories winning control of hung councils such as Mid-Suffolk, North Wiltshire, Waverley and Woking, and perhaps taking Northampton. In the North, they will want to retain control of Liverpool, Newcastle and York, and even triumph in the old Labour stronghold of Hull.
Labour did badly in 2003, the last time these seats were fought, so if it loses further ground it will be a truly awful night for the Government. In addition to the seats already mentioned, it is likely to take a battering practically everywhere, losing its last representatives in many Southern councils. Perhaps the most it can hope for is to hold onto its northern heartlands, so it will be desperate to keep control of Blackburn, Bury, Oldham, even though it will take only a small swing for them to become hung.
It could be a good night for the smaller parties. The Greens are putting up a record 1,200+ candidates and will hope to increase their current 91 councillors to over 100. In particular, if the Greens poll strongly in Brighton, where they already have 6 councillors, they could stop the Tories taking control.
The BNP is also fielding a record 750+ candidates and is campaigning in many new areas. In addition to fighting in its traditional working class territory, such as Essex, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, parts of Lancashire, it is seeking to exploit discontent about immigration by taking its message to suburban and rural areas, targeting Torbay, Solihull, Shrewsbury and Harrogate.