Local elections could be the least predictable in years

A rare moment of consensus between the leaders of the three main political parties
A rare moment of consensus between the leaders of the three main political parties Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Labour looks set to gain hundreds of additional councillors on Thursday.

Nearly 2,400 seats in 34 councils in England and one in Wales are up for grabs. In addition, there are mayoral contests in Doncaster and North Tyneside, as well as the South Shields parliamentary by-election following the resignation of David Miliband.

The Tories swept all before them the last time most of these councils were contested in 2009, winning seven in every ten seats and overall control of every county except Cumbria.

For Labour, by contrast, the elections marked an historic low point, eclipsing even the disastrous performances back in 1967 and 1968.

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Labour Leader Ed Miliband takes to a pallet to talk to the residents of South Shields
Labour Leader Ed Miliband takes to a pallet to talk to the residents of South Shields Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

The latest projections of the national vote put Labour on 38% - up no less than 16 points compared with four years ago; the Conservatives on 29% - down 6 points; and the Lib Dems on 16% - nine points down on 2009.

If those figures are reflected in the actual votes cast, Labour will make about 350 gains.

Labour’s priority is to win back the four counties in the Midlands and the North that it lost in 2009. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire seem certain gains; both Lancashire and Staffordshire are realistic goals.

Further south, Labour will target seats in the more urban areas which encompass Conservative-held parliamentary marginals.

Success in places like Harlow in Essex, Dartford in Kent, and Crawley in West Sussex is essential for Ed Miliband’s prospects in 2015.

Read: UKIP surge to 22% of vote in latest ComRes Poll

Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings leaves the count in Eastleigh, Hampshire after finishing third after UKIP in the March by-election
Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings leaves the count in Eastleigh, Hampshire after finishing third after UKIP in the March by-election Credit: Chris Ison/PA Wire

The Conservatives are likely to lose at least 300 seats overall, with their majority in counties like Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire potentially under threat.

The Lib Dems have lost half their seats at each of the last two local elections. This time they go head-to-head with Labour in many fewer places and may cap their losses at about a quarter of the nearly 500 seats they are defending.

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UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the campaign trail
UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the campaign trail Credit: Chris Ison/PA Wire

The known unknown in this year’s elections is the performance of UKIP.

It has recently taken council seats from the Tories, and is putting up almost as many candidates as the Lib Dems. Its performance is likely to be patchy, with seat gains probably numbered in the tens, but the votes it attracts will influence many results.

The main parties are emphasising that the elections are about who runs the council and that policies not protest should be uppermost in voters’ minds.

Even if that pitch is successful, these could be the most unpredictable local contests for years.