Triple test in crucial elections

Salisbury Journal: Pundits and party chiefs will anxiously watch the English council polls, less than a year before the general election Pundits and party chiefs will anxiously watch the English council polls, less than a year before the general election

Voters throughout the UK will head for the polling booths during next year in one of the most crucial clutch of elections in its history.

Pundits and party chiefs will anxiously watch the English council polls, less than a year before the general election, particularly as the majority of seats up for grabs on May 22 were last fought on the same day as the 2010 parliamentary contest.

Voting also takes place throughout the UK that day for the European Parliament, in a key challenge for Ukip which finished second last time. It will seek to keep up the momentum after sweeping gains in the 2013 local polls. The results will be declared on the night of Sunday May 25 after all voting has finished in the EU.

September 18 will see Scotland vote on whether to go for independence. The outcome will also be critical for the rest of the UK - in particular the possible departure of Scotland's MPs could radically shift the balance at Westminster.

Labour is likely to make overall gains in council polls as it trailed Tories by more than 7% in the general election.

It already dominates the Metropolitan authorities covering the big cities and conurbations but may hope to add Calderdale and Walsall.

Tories could lose control at Trafford, Greater Manchester but have a better chance of holding their other Met at Solihull, West Midlands. The Liberal Democrats' best hope in these areas would be to recapture Stockport.

The Conservatives' vote share held up in last year's London mayoral and assembly polls, but much of this was down to the Boris Johnson factor. They may face a bigger challenge in May's borough elections.

Labour could make a breakthrough at Barnet and also take control at Croydon and Merton. The Tories could win from the Lib Dems at Kingston-upon-Thames but lose to them at neighbouring Richmond.

There may be an outside chance for the Conservatives to gain from no overall control at Redbridge.

Labour took over Harrow last time, but its party group then suffered a huge split leaving the Tories to run a minority administration. Almost any outcome could be possible in May.

Three of the all-purpose unitary authorities at stake are finely balanced.

The Tories could lose to no overall control at Southend-on-Sea and Swindon. Labour could be ousted at Thurrock.

Possible Labour targets in the shire districts include Amber Valley, Crawley, Great Yarmouth, Tamworth and West Lancashire from the Tories and Cambridge from no overall control.

The Conservatives could lose outright majorities at Purbeck and Winchester but may have a chance of gaining at Basingstoke and Deane and St Albans.

The Lib Dems' best hopes of district gains could be at Cambridge and Mole Valley but they would need a large swing to take more seats after strong performances there in 2010.

Labour is likely to win in three London borough mayoral elections at Hackney, Lewisham and Newham.

However, there could be a bitter battle at Tower Hamlets where Labour's former council leader Lutfur Rahman stood against his old party in as an independent in 2010 and won. .

Outside the capital, the Lib Dems are likely to win the Watford mayoral poll.

So far No campaigners have led in most opinion polls on the Scottish referendum, but if a week is a long time in politics more than 10 months seems an eternity.

Ahead of September there will be several other tests of public opinion. As well as council by-elections, there is a Holyrood contest at Labour's marginal Cowdenbeath constituency on January 23.

Its history is dominated by the coal industry in which miners were effectively kept as serfs until the end of the 18th century. Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown and Willie Gallacher, Westminster's last Communist, are among MPs who have represented the area.

If the drop in SNP support seen at 2013 contests at next door Dunfermline and Aberdeen Donside is repeated at Cowdenbeath this would be ominous for the referendum Yes campaign.

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