Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Two useless manifestos

Political manifestos can be bland affairs: a trail of verities with only a few new things in them, half of which are designed to appeal to the party faithful while the other half win over some crucial component of the electorate. Not so in this election, with two potentially real and big milestones in British political history rising up on the horizon. On the one hand, a Labour Party committed to a universalism in welfare and a control of the economy that no-one has advocated since the 1987 election; on the other, a Conservative Party under Theresa May (above) seemingly determined to break with the free-market liberalism that took over the party in the mid- to late-1970s. It’s big stuff: or, at least, it purports to be.

Which makes the shoddiness of those very documents all the more disappointing, really. They just don’t match up to the occasion of any election, let alone this one, held in the shadow of Brexit – the single most important policy upheaval since at least the 1970s, and probably since the Second World War. The Government’s effort is a deeply unimpressive list of already-announced and hitherto-known targets, spiced up with some inedible pseudo-Disraelian musings about the role of the state, but also burdened down by one terrible miscalculation: a ‘Dementia Tax’ for social care that could just cost the Conservatives scores of seats they might otherwise have won. Labour’s own pantomime horse is just as bitterly disappointing. Nationalisation: not much about how it would be effected, structured, managed. More taxes: nothing on the fact that they probably won’t raise what Labour say they will. And a load of middle class giveaways, while the party leaves low income workers to suffer. Sometimes we wonder why we bother writing about public policy at all.

Let’s start with the Conservatives. Here we were really confronted with a trail of nothingness. Yes, they are going to negotiate Brexit on the basis of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. Totally irrational and needless national self-harm, yes, but at least cut-and-dried in the voter’s mind. There are a series of interventionist measures, too – all designed so that Mrs May can appeal to the new blue-collar working class Conservatives she imagines flocking to her banner. An Industrial Strategy. New rules on planning gain that make sure volume housebuilders give back to the community. More social housing. Increased funding for the National Health Service. So far, so bland. But other pledges involved supping water soup. Yes, there are to be some more grammar schools – though there probably won’t be very many, and they are likely to be satellites of those that already exist. Wake us up when it's all over.

Worst of all, the Conservatives inexplicably chose to announce wholesale reform of social care for the elderly with a pre-emptory wave of the hand, saying that at-home care would now draw on pensioners’ housing equity, but be limited at £100,000. It’s fair to say that this on-the-hoof busking has, well, not proceeded entirely to the party’s design. Not only did this seem to place risk at the door of chance, charging voters for long-term conditions rather than acute health crises, but it made no sense even on its own terms. Political history will probably long record that this was the main reason why Mrs May gained only a middling majority, rather than a landslide, and it’s an inexplicable blunder until you realise that this was meant to signal the Conservatives’ new desire to help young, poorer and capital-poor voters… who, er, all hope to take advantage of inheritances the Conservatives now wanted to snatch from them. No wonder it’s the middle-aged, not just the over-65s, who seem to have swung away from the Conservatives since this particular policy smell was emitted.

Now: Labour. It’s hard to know where to start with this one either. We’ve long noted Labour’s drift to the right, shrugging when the tax and benefits system hurts working people on low incomes but showering unbounded largesse on higher-income graduates, quite often themselves the exact same white-collar Labour members who just happen to imagine themselves representative of working people. So we get a sharp tax cut for richer graduates in the shape of university tuition fee abolition, and an expansion of child care and free-for-all school meals, while at the same time most of the Conservatives’ welfare cuts are to be left in place. Nye Bevan this is not. Labour has now become such a middle-class party that it cannot even see when it is betraying its own voters. Some of them will have the last word on this in the voting booth on 8 June, but in the meantime we have to bear this kind of leftier-than-thou nonsense as our stand-in for socialism.

There was at least an attempt to cost out the whole thing, rather irrelevant as this is when the whole Brexit process is about to get underway – and at a time when we therefore don’t know very much about our growth path in the next Parliament. That was more than the Conservatives managed, as their own effort didn’t contain any costings at all. But none of it stacked up. Labour’s going to raise income tax for higher earners – an increase the yield of which is highly uncertain, and deeply contingent on how high earners respond. They’re going to raise Capital Gains Tax and Corporation Tax to pay for the rest, though no-one at all who knows anything about it thinks that these will plug the gap either. And oh, by the way: in this little while they'll be bringing forward university fees’ abolition to this September (almost impossible and, by the way, uncosted), nationalising social care (ludicrously under-costed) and ramping up infrastructure spending - while negotiating on Brexit (uncosted), nationalising the water industry, and railway franchises, and socialising the energy grid. Maybe they’ll crack the secret of cold nuclear fusion while they’re at it. We wouldn’t be surprised. Look: come off it. If J.K. Rowling wasn’t a noted opponent of Labour’s present fantasyland incarnation, we’d presume she’d written this lot.

The public know, in their hearts, that Mrs May’s little clique of sub-Salisburyites and neo-Chamberlainites like to think of themselves as Red Tories, but won’t lower the Inheritance Tax threshold to pay for social care in a fairer and less random way. Voters understand that the long list of half-evasions between the blue covers just amounts to ‘we’ll be beastly to you, but there’s nothing you can do about it for a decade, because the Opposition’s a joke’. And they see Labour’s wish list for what it is: a great big box of nice stuff for better-off Britons that’s been thrown together at the behest of a leadership team that sure as beans wouldn’t pass A-Level Maths. Neither is remotely credible.

All the while the real problems before us are left unattended. While our politicians slumber on, British productivity continues to lag. It is unlikely that the Conservatives’ social care debacle, or Labour’s sudden conversion to abolishing university tuition fees, will do much to rectify that. And where was the deep thinking, and creative politicking, on Further Education – the reform and funding of which is far more important than how little the Treasury can eek out to University Vice-Chancellors? On the onward march of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, which we’re always being told are about to transform the world of work? Or: what the curse of mass surveillance? Where was the work on porting our rights, training and especially pensions around and between jobs? On protecting banking, copyright, pharmaceuticals, aerospace co-operation and students from a ‘hard’ or (if you like) a ‘clean’ Brexit? On the protection of, and liberty while using, the World Wide Web – about which the Conservatives have a frankly pathetic section talking about new controls? Basically, they were nowhere: just as you were, reader, forgotten amidst the cut-and-paste workarounds of our parties’ overrated sherpas and signallers.

The need for a fundamental reconstruction of British politics has never been clearer, because the ease by which very small and closely-networked cadres of ersatz zealots can capture what were once parties rooted in real life stands once again revealed by this contest of the incredible in pursuit of the unlikeable. Remember: Andrea Leadsom – Andrea Leadsom – nearly became Prime Minister. In just ten days, John McDonnell – John McDonnell – has a non-negligible (though not very high) chance of moving into No. 11 Downing Street. On that day, one of these tawdry ‘manifestos’ could well be a tool in the hands of those who want to railroad the courts, the press, the police, the universities, the House of Lords... and the voters themselves. Britain can be better than this. One day, it will be.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The odd tale of Labour's rising poll numbers

Britain's local elections were pretty much a triumph for the Conservatives, as we outlined last week. And the party looks more than on course to win the General Election on 8 June with a substantially larger majority. But relatively unnoticed, and against expectations, the main Opposition Labour Party's numbers have begun to creep up - and by quite a lot. From their pitiful position in the mid-20s, and after a year in which they'd crept downwards in the polls almost every single week, there's been a sudden reversal of lots of those losses. Now you might very crudely say that the party sits on about 30 per cent in the polls - a big and meaningful improvement. What's behind this rather better news for the red team? Let's take a look.

Let Corbyn be Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn was an abysmal Leader of the Opposition. He only escapes the moniker 'worst since 1945' via the sheer existence of Iain Duncan Smith, a man so unsuited to winning over actual voters that Michael Howard seemed like a ray of sunshine. Lethargic, laggardly and frankly uninterested in Parliament, Mr Corbyn's leadership style meant he couldn't even stock a Labour Front Bench with people willing to work with him, let alone take on the Government. But freed from the constraints of boring old stuff like meetings, agendas, briefings and numbers, he looks much better. He likes campaigning. He clearly enjoys it. The small- to medium-sized slice of the country that likes his brand of socialism warm to him. They buoy him up. His confidence grows, and so he gives better speeches. Standing on the stump shouting about 'evil Tories', and surrounded by adoring crowds (above), he looks better on TV too. There's a little bit of enthusiasm and excitement to the images coming out of Labour - along with some very popular policies (and savvy media tricks) that have garnered the party really good headlines for day after day after day. All of which means that Mr Corbyn's numbers have begun to improve as he gets a tick from voters thinking 'at least he seems passionate. At least he seems to believe what he says'. Most voters haven't paid all that much attention to him before. Now they take their first looks, they think 'he's not quite as bad as people say'. Let's not get carried away. His polling is still dire. But he's climbed out of a polling dungeon and made it to a set of dingy underground library stacks. Next stop: the basement.

Campaigning in prose. You can contrast this fly-by-night style with that of the Prime Minister. Whisper it softly (and we've noted this before), but Theresa May is a terrible campaigner. Stiff, starchy, heavy on her feet, ill-at-ease with people, it's actually hard not to feel a little bit sorry for her personally - thrust into a campaigning environment in which she is obviously no natural. She appears only in empty factories, in front of Conservative activists, meeting local businesspeople, all the while trying to keep a grimace from her face. Eating chips? Going to a market? Talking to real people? She looks like she's never done any of it before in her whole life. Added to this are some vote-shedding blunders. Now Mrs May has votes a-plenty. She can probably afford to lose five points, let alone worry about Labour adding that amount, before she even needs to shift out of neutral. But remember two things about the British electorate. One: it's quite old, and getting older very rapidly. Two: Brits are on the whole a breed of animal-lovers. Refusing to commit to the triple lock on raising state pensions (by the greater of inflation, wages or 2.5%), and talking about bringing back fox hunting, amount to basically throwing some votes away because you know you can get away with it. But they won't attract many more Labour switchers, that's for sure.

Labour returnees. Our overwhelming impression of this election is that this country is chock full of Labour waverers - people who say 'well, I'm normally Labour, but I don't like Jeremy'. That has been confirmed to us anecdotally, from canvassing rumours, and in focus groups. It's just a standing fact. There's nothing Labour can do about that now: but what's helping them is Labour leaners returning 'home' now that there's a forced choice between 'Labour' (not 'Corbyn') and 'the Tories'. Labour's roots in England and Wales go very, very deep. It is the party of the National Health Service, public sector workers, The Guardian, The Mirror, the trade unions, the universities, teachers, social workers, liberals, socialists and more. And right now, they have nowhere else to go - especially as the Liberal Democrats' campaign seems oddly stalled (we'll come to them in another post). So they're reluctantly shuffling back into the red column. At the nadir of Labour's fortunes, when they polled just 23% in a YouGov poll on 12-13 April, just 68 per cent of Labour's 2015 voters were sticking with them. On the latest count, that's up to 80 per cent. In some ways, that's all you need to know. A good 30 per cent or so of the electorate might still just 'be' Labour, rather than choosing Labour - a remarkable achievement, when you come to think about it. It's not enough to win an election, sure, but it's still a big slice of the British people. Even Jeremy Corbyn couldn't alienate them. One wonders what would.

The return of two-party politics. Mr Corbyn and Mrs May are polarising figures, in a way, not so much in Mrs May's case because of her (almost entirely nugatory) political personality, but because of her apparent determination to lead a Hard Brexit government. Mr Corbyn enthuses young people, students and some disaffected middle class professionals - but almost no-one else. Still, you know (or think you know) what they stand for. In a complex age made all the more confusing by a blizzard of information on social media, they have 'cut through' - for good or ill. Their opponents seem paralysed. The United Kingdom Independence Party are completely eclipsed by the Conservatives' new ownership of all that UKIP used to stand for. The Liberal Democrats attempt to stand as 'the party of Europe', although pretty much all that was open to them as definition and campaign tool, seems to be failing because most Britons accept their fate outside the European Union with some equanimity. UKIP is losing vote share hand over fist, while the Lib Dems have (less noticeably) lost a couple of points. And although a lot of that UKIP vote is boosting the Conservatives, a slice of it will go back from whence it came - the Labour Party - as some of the council results from a couple of weeks back suggest. Labour is not only being boosted by its returnees: it's probably put on two per cent or so from UKIP and Lib Dem defectors.

Let's not over-egg the pudding here. Right now, Labour looks likely to lose about sixty to around eighty seats. All of this looks very much like the 1987 campaign, when a very weak and divided Labour Party surprised everyone with an energetic campaign that, for just a moment and in a trick of the light, even looked like it might carry the day. A mix of Labour returnees and UKIP-Lib Dem switchers is likely, geographically, to see the Labour vote hemmed into the party's heartlands and cities. They might lose even more seats than looks possible right now if that does indeed turn out to be the case, or those soft Labour voters do indeed decide to stay at home (note that in a way this would not be 'polling error' as such, but just Labour voters failing to turn up on the day... yet again).

Labour could lose scores of MPs even if they match their 2015 vote share of 31.2 per cent. And this little bump might be for nothing. It might peter out. The Conservatives are riding so, so high that just a bit of backsliding between now and 8 June, Labour waverers not making it to the booths, or some good old-fashioned sampling error could still turn a very, very bad defeat into a catastrophe. But Labour are definitely rising in the polls. We're not quite sure about the exact admixture of reasons. That's what makes the whole thing so fascinating.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Reeling from the Blue-Nami

So. Britain's local elections. We marked your card last week with many of the crunch results to look out for. Now we can go through them, ticking off the points on the sliderule as we use our key contests as a way of measuring the state of the parties.

What did we say last week? Well, we advised you to keep a look out for the new Metro Mayor contests in the West of England and the West Midlands - the first a three-way contest between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and the second a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. Then we said: can Labour keep control in Derbyshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Nottinghamshire? Can the Lib Dems seize Somerset and Devon? In Wales, could Labour keep control of Cardiff and Swansea in South Wales? And lastly, in Scotland, how big was the Conservative move forward likely to be? Could they win scores of councillors, especially in places that they might aim to win in June's General Election?

The answers are as follows: the Conservatives, astonishingly, beat these tests in almost every single case, with one significant exception that we'll come to in a moment. They won both those Metro Mayor contests. Only just, to be fair, but they did it. Since we said last week that even getting close in the West Midlands would be a sign of a quite frightening Labour retreat, we're going to have to stick to our guns: they are in big, big trouble. Note, if you will, that Labour failed to get enough preferences in the final round from other parties to close up the gap between them and the Conservatives from first choices. Although the Supplementary Vote is a confusing system that makes voters guess who will get into the runoff, that still shows that the party is becoming pretty toxic. Does anyone really think that Liberal Democrat voters will look favourably on co-operation with this particular brand of Labour Party? You need to get out more if you do.

The English local elections were, if anything, more worrying for both Labour and the Lib Dems. Those council contests we said Labour had to keep their noses ahead in? They got kicked around in every single one. Northumberland: leapfrogged. Nottinghamshire: supplanted. Lancashire: beaten. Cumbria: the same. Derbyshire: from outright control to Opposition. And so on. Basically, they got hammered. Things seem nearly as bad for the Lib Dems, despite months and months of local byelection gains that now seem like they were caused by care, attention and activism rather than a genuine groundswell of sentiment towards the party. The Liberal Democrat vote did go up from the last time these seats were fought in 2013, it's true: but it often rose in the wrong places, away from the wards and councils they used to be able to target - in the South West, for instance. They did poorly even in Bath; they failed to get very far in Cornwall; they stalled in Somerset. You get the picture. They ought to be getting more and more concerned. What is happening is that their advance is being outstripped by the Conservatives' moves forward, powered as they are by voters fleeing the United Kingdom Independence Party in their droves. As and when UKIP collapses altogether (and they got almost entirely wiped out in these elections), this will get worse and not better.

In Wales, Labour showed a bit of fight. It was pretty much the only place where they did, so it was noticeable. Labour Wales is in intensive care, but it's not quite dead yet. In line with much polling evidence showing some of their core vote firming up as we approach the forced-choice moment of a General Election, and with all the data we have showing them doing better in cities than in towns and villages, they did okay in Swansea (above), Newport and Cardiff, unexpectedly holding most of their territory against what had seemed like a concerted Conservative challenge. They are helped by the continuing weakness of the Liberal Democrats, here as in England; and by Plaid Cymru's continued inability to stage any sort of breakthrough. It's also hard to tell whether the large contingent of Independents in Welsh local government (who did very well) are concealing an 'anyone but Labour' vote in June. If they are, then the Conservatives will perform as well as the polling continues to suggest, perhaps powering them to a historic seats victory here in June. These results suggest that some of their really ambitious targets - Newport East, Cardiff West, Cardiff South - might lie just outside their grasp as the Conservative vote surges outside of urban South Wales. But then again, the electorate in June will look very different. Labour got away with it this time in Wales, just as they did in the 2016 Assembly election. Sooner or later, the dam might break.

Scottish voters were treated to a strange sight: like an aligning of some far-distant stars or a solar eclipse, the Conservative advance here took no-one by surprise, but was still a startling and jarring novelty worth taking a precise bearing on. No-one should get too carried away about all this: getting a quarter of the vote just takes the Scottish Tories back to the kind of position they expected to sit at during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before their total wipeout in 1997. But gaining 12 per cent since the last time these wards were up for grabs (in 2012) means that they are definitely getting somewhere, especially as the Scottish National Party appeared to undershoot its local government performance over the last two years. Just as we see in the Scottish opinion polls, the utter hegemony of the SNP high tide appears to have passed. It might come back again. Their vote might stick where it is. But for now, Scots Conservatives have cornered the market in aggressive, assertive Unionism, and it's working. Take a look at where they could win seats: in South Aberdeenshire, in the Borders, in Perthshire, and in Moray (that last one's a bit of a stretch). They did well in just those places. Their vote is not only going up: it's quite concentrated, the key to success to elections held under First Past the Post. Talk of twelve or even fifteen gains in June seems absurd - akin to the athletic boasting of an out-of-condition middle-aged man who's just started going to the gym again. But they're going to win a few seats. That'll boost Theresa May's unquestioned supremacy even further.

Your basic takeaway might be this: the Conservatives are, for now, carrying all before them. The Tory tanks are just steamrollering everyone, everywhere. Though the SNP is for now resisting the tide, even their defences are clearly weakening. The great Labour Party of the twentieth century is threatening to come apart entirely. The Liberal Democrats are just too weak and too small to get much lift-off. UKIP are dying. In that vacuum, the reassuring and soporific figure of Mrs May only has to stand still to win almost every race by a mile. Before Thursday, we thought we knew all this. Now we do know. It's going to take a huge change between now and the next polling day to alter any of this. Maybe the expenses scandal will blow up and taint the Conservative campaign. Maybe something else will intervene. But if nothing changes between now and 8 June, a massive great blue combine harvester is going to shred its way through the political landscape. Don't be surprised at the barren, exhausted soil it leaves behind.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

What should we look out for on Super Thursday?

So it was nice to have a holiday from blogging over Easter. We were looking forward to a nice quiet summer looking at some wonky-but-vital public policy questions. Has anything important been announced while we've been gone? Oh.

Well, despite the descending pall of despair prompted by yet another vote, we're going to try to keep our heads and stay on target - providing you with a bit of a handy guide as to what to expect while looking through the mind-bending seventies lava lamp that the next few weeks will at times resemble. Remember: numbers are your pal. The trend is your friend. Reason still applies. As the heat rises, just take a step back and ask: beyond the red mist, where have we got to really? How much have things really changed? The answer usually being: not far from where we started. And: not that much, really.

So it is with this Thursday's local elections across the United Kingdom. Most of the country is going to the polls, mostly to elect their local councillors, but also to pick a rash of inelegantly-titled but quite important Metro Mayors in some big cities. Those contests are important in their own right, of course, for local social services, elderly care, transport and planning: but they also tell us a great deal about the state of the parties. Every year since 2011, we've tried to give you a bit of an insight into what all this means. Then, it meant that Ed Miliband probably wasn't going to make it to No. 10. We were right. In 2012, the Liberal Democrats took the full brunt of public anger about coalition cuts: we predicted that they would one day have to meet in a shoebox. That wasn't too shoddy a prediction either. Last year, we thought that Labour would do quite poorly, failing to gain any purchase pretty much anywhere outside London. And so it proved - though they did better than some doomsayers believed they might.

This year? We're not going to try a prediction. There's no point. No doubt Labour will do fairly badly (though not quite catastrophically), the United Kingdom Independence Party will crash and burn compared to their 2013 high water mark, and the Conservatives will make gains. In Scotland, and despite some recent signs that enthusiasm for them has come slightly off the boil, the Scottish National Party will complete their demolition job on Labour, ending their control of major cities such as Glasgow - a major news story in its own right. So far, so simple. The only issue in doubt? It's by no means so clear how well the Liberal Democrats will do, because their recent run of great local by-election results makes them look great at this level - an impression undermined by their failure to get much of an upward lift in the national polling at all. But we'll know fairly soon. Friday will reveal all. 

It's probably more useful to help you with a clearing-house of what to look for as indicators of success and failure. As the cascade of numbers then rolls in, you'll have a rough-and-ready way of making your own mind up about victors and vanquished.

In England, if local byelections were our guide, election gurus Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher reckon that the Liberal Democrats will do well, but Labour will do very poorly: the former party might pick up just under 100 gains, while the latter lose perhaps 75 councillors - predictions that have been revised up (for the Lib Dems) and down (for Labour) in recent weeks as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have continued to surge in local byelections. The Lib Dems have ambitions to win majority control in Cornwall, and to wrest Somerset and Devon back from Conservative control. But for Labour as the formal and major party of Opposition to be losing seats while it's still some way below its councillor strength even when in government is some mean feat of underachievement, and points to a very poor result in June. Bear in mind also that the Rallings and Thrasher figures aren't particularly up-to-date, as there haven't been many local byelections for a few weeks: if the polls are to believed, things could be much worse for Labour given the deficit that now yawns between them and their main rivals. They could in theory lose more than 300 councillors. Even the Lib Dems would be hit by a surge in support for Theresa May, losing a handful of wards as the Conservatives carry all before them. This will be an interesting test. If Labour doesn't lose any councillors, or even gains a few on the back of UKIP's decline, then people will start talking as if it could hold on to many more marginals than predicted come the June General Election. In terms of councils, can Labour hold on to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, even as they probably lose overall control there? Can they stay in power (albeit in coalition) in Lancashire, Northumberland and Cumbria? Given that these are England's mainly-blue counties, Labour doesn't have all that much to defend - but can they keep their county councillor count above that of the Lib Dems? We'll soon know.

In terms of the English Metro Mayors, there are only really two that tell us all that much: the West of England contest, probably a three-way battle between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour; and the West Midlands match-up between the Conservatives and Labour (above). The Peterborough and Cambridge election is overwhelmingly likely to end in a Conservative victory, while Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley will almost certainly stay Labour. It's almost impossible to divine who'll come out on top in the West Midlands (just possibly Labour), while in Bristol, Bath and South Gloucestershire we'd mark your card for the Liberal Democrats and their ex-MP Stephen Williams, though that's quite frankly a complete guess based on local support for Remain at the EU Referendum, as well a dash or two of anecdote as well as Mr Williams' personal face recognition. One thing's for sure: if Labour even comes close to losing the West Midlands, given the 9.4 per cent lead it enjoyed there at the 2015 General Election, it's going to get hammered at the national polls in June. If they do actually lose their grip on this region, it portends a truly historic defeat (eight of its first fifty defences are in the West Midlands). And if the Lib Dems can get close to capturing the West of England Mayoralty, they have a real shot at taking back local marginals such as Thornbury and Yate and Bath. 

In Scotland, the SNP will continue its long march through Labour's old citadels. The last time these councils were fought over, in 2012, Labour still felt as if Scotland was its own domain or back yard in some way. Well, they don't feel like that now, that's for sure. Labour only lost out to the SNP by less than a single percentage point back in 2012, at a time when they were running some way ahead of their Nationalist rivals in General Election polling. Now, reduced to a pitiful remnant of their former selves and desperately fighting to hold on to their single Scottish MP in Edinburgh South, Labour can thank their lucky stars that they will be sheltered by the proportional voting system Scotland uses to elect local authorities. If they weren't, they might get wiped off the map altogether, Except them to get an almighty walloping anyway, despite their PR umbrella. The main interest here will be: is the apparent Conservative surge in Scotland, heralded by forecasts of anything between three and eleven gains in June, really going to see the Scottish Conservatives splash a whole load of blue back onto the map? Look here not just for how high their vote goes - can it get into the mid- to high-20s? - but also how concentrated it is, from South Aberdeenshire to Dumfries and Galloway. If they do really well in elections to those councils, and perhaps in Angus and Moray as well, they really could be heading for a breakthrough night on 8 June.

Last but by no means least, in Wales it does look as if Labour will lose lots of councillors. They did really well here in 2012, picking up 235 councillors and eight councils. So they're likely to drop back, especially as the latest polling coming out of Wales saw Labour on course for a historic kicking in June. Can it really be true that Welsh Labour will end up ten points behind the Conservatives come the General Election? And that the Conservatives will actually win the most seats in Wales, for the first time since the nineteenth century? Well, Thursday will give us some indication. The only poll we have of the local, as opposed to the Westminster, contest here shows Labour a couple of points ahead of the Conservatives, and therefore likely to hold on in some of the places that they might lose in June (but down from a 20-point lead in 2012). So if there's a narrow Labour lead, bearing out results from the same data used to construct the recent shock YouGov poll on Westminster voting intention, it does seem likely that the Conservatives will make deep inroads here come the general poll. Look for results coming out of Cardiff, Delyn and Alyn and Deeside if you want a rough-and-ready guide to how some of Labour's at-risk Welsh marginals might perform five weeks from now.

Overall, by this Friday evening we'll get at least some sharper - but still fuzzy - sense of the overall state of the parties. The coldest of cold takes will be this: 'ah, well, this and this doesn't match the polls, so they must be wrong'. Keep in mind that these are local elections. Lots of independents are standing. Loads of local issues are in play. Some voters will vote tactically when they look at the shape of their own council, and in ways that they might not when choosing a Prime Minister. In 1983 and 1987, for instance, the Conservatives ended the night on a projected national share of the vote 'only' three per cent and six per cent ahead of Labour. In General Elections just a month or so later, they ended up sixteen and eleven points ahead - a dichotomy that looks likely to remain in place this time. So if the Conservatives lead at all when you see academics discussing the national vote share - even by just a few points - then the opposition parties could still be in deep trouble. As Mike Smithson over at politicalbetting.com has pointed out, this time voters know that there's about to be a General Election (they didn't in 1983 and 1987), and so national preferences will indeed shape these contests more than most. But the qualitative signs above - rather than the raw numbers - should still give you a good impression of who's hot (and who's not) as we gear up for the national contest that's now upon us.

Lucky old us, eh?