Labour leaders are braced for historically poor local election results in the first national test under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Pollsters have deepened internal fears that the party could lose more seats than it gains, only the third net defeat in council elections.
While the result will be influenced by demographic changes and the fact that Labour was at a high-water mark last time most of the seats were contested, Corbyn’s supporters fear the vote on May 5 will be used as a catalyst for a leadership challenge.
Any attempt by disgruntled MPs to move against him would not be instigated until after the 23 June referendum but a poor council showing is expected to increase coded and not so coded questions about the leader’s ability to win a general election in 2020.
Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University has predicted 170 seats and a string of councils could be lost on current polling evidence, the worst result since 1982 when 225 seats were lost. Under Michael Foot’s leadership the previous year, Labour picked up 988 seats.
The party should make gains in Scotland, where the SNP is confident of once again emerging as the clear majority party at Holyrood. But it starts from a poor stand in the polls and the Scottish Tories are concentrating their campaign on overtaking Labour to become the second largest party in the devolved parliament.
Labour strategists are reported to be locked into “managing expectations” with campaign chief Jon Trickett focusing on getting the Labour vote to turn out.
He says: “In every region of the country, Labour is fighting for more than 90 per cent of seats, with 100 per cent of all seats in the West Midlands fielding Labour candidates. We must hold this Government to account and get a fair deal for local people. It is time for every party member to ensure that as many of our council candidates as possible are election winners.”