Even a bad night for Labour in Manchester would leave the ruling group still firmly in control of the council, where only three of the 96 councillors currently belong to other parties. But unexpected wins for the Lib Dems and the Greens over the last 12 months have left a chink in the armour of the country’s largest Labour group, which faces its first local elections under new leadership for a quarter of a century.
Sir Richard Leese, who oversaw Labour’s most dominant days at the town hall, stepped down in December, making way for his deputy Bev Craig to take over. She has visited all 32 council wards since becoming leader – but as the local elections approach, campaigning has been focused on the key battlegrounds.
There are three contests which Labour sources say are still ‘too close to call’ and another two typically tight races which they are less concerned about. The Lib Dems are hoping to secure a second seat in the Ancoats and Beswick ward on the back of their surprising success at a by-election earlier this year.
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But they must avoid another defeat to Labour in Didsbury West if their longest serving councillor John Leech – first elected 25 years ago – is to hold onto his swing seat. Last May, the Greens won their first Manchester council seat since 2008 and all of their efforts are now aimed at securing a second in Woodhouse Park.
Across the city, Labour campaigners say national issues – such as the cost of living crisis – have been most prominent in their conversations with voters. Partygate has helped mobilise Labour voters, with older people in particular expressing anger about the Conservative government, Labour sources say.
However, the Conservatives are not contenders in any of the key target seats, so this line of attack has limited impact in wooing voters to switch to Labour. And the ‘shenanigans’ in Westminster are said to have put some people off politics altogether which might affect the city’s already typically low turnout.
The Lib Dems claim to be the credible alternative to the two major parties and hope to capitalise on apathy among voters who feel let down by Labour locally. They have the momentum in Ancoats and Beswick following February’s by-election win and believe they have gained even more support since then.
But since losing there, Labour have been out in force, hoping to stem the flow. Senior Labour sources boast their campaign to unseat long-serving Lib Dem John Leech in Didsbury West is their biggest and the data ‘looks good’ so far.
However, others say they would be surprised if Labour secured a second consecutive win in the ward where Lib Dem sources say it will not be close. Despite losing by a larger margin last year, when the ‘ Burnham bounce’ in the mayoral elections is believed to have benefited the ruling group, the Lib Dems usually give Labour a run for their money in Withington and Didsbury East.
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But Labour sources say they are not concerned about losing these seats. Woodhouse Park, where Labour lost to the Greens last year, will be another one to watch as both parties throw everything at the ward in Wythenshawe.
Green Party sources say there are far more posters in windows supporting their side, but Labour are confident that their candidate is respected locally. However, demographic shifts in the ward where Manchester Airport is located and many of its workers call home make this result even harder to predict.
Polls open on Thursday (May 5) with results to be declared the following day.
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