After a troubled fortnight for Ed Miliband, today's local elections will determine whether the narrative moves back in his favour. The county councils were last fought in 2009, at the nadir of Gordon Brown's political fortunes, so Labour is certain to make gains but how many it makes and, as importantly, where it makes them will be the key test.
At a minimum, the party needs to make net gains of around 250-300 and win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. A good result would also see it make significant gains in the Midlands battlegrounds of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and challenge the Tories for control of Cumbria. Labour should also hope to dent the Tories' majority on councils like Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk and win the mayoral contests in Doncaster and North Tyneside.
Held in areas long dominated by the Conservatives, the county council elections are an imprecise guide to Labour's national standing. As Tom Watson has pointed out, "80% of the areas facing local elections this year elected a Tory MP – compared to just 11% electing a Labour MP – making their seats nearly doubly overrepresented and Labour seats massively underrepresented."
Labour's vote share last time round was just 13 per cent, so the party should hope to get close to or match the 26 per cent it polled in 2005. The ComRes poll earlier this week put it on 24 per cent, two points ahead of UKIP. Retaining that advantage will be crucial if Miliband is to continue to present Labour as a government-in-waiting.
As well as the local elections, today also sees the South Shields by-election, triggered by David Miliband's departure to New York. Although there is no question of Labour losing the seat, where it holds a majority of 11,109, the party is engaged in extreme expectation management.
Today's Guardian reports on speculation by Labour figures that UKIP could "possibly" win the seat. It won't. It does, however, appear increasingly likely that UKIP will finish second, perhaps even bettering the result it achieved in Eastleigh (where it polled 28 per cent), its strongest by-election performance to date. Given that the party didn't even put forward a candidate in 2010, that is some measure of its dramatic progress in the last year.