Council and mayoral elections across England on 6 May are a challenge for both main party leaders.
Boris Johnson must demonstrate that his general election victory signalled a reshaping of the Conservative brand.
It is imperative that Sir Keir Starmer significantly increases the number of Labour councils and councillors rather than the losses sustained under his predecessor.
It will be difficult to judge the outcome of these elections. The pandemic meant postponing the 2020 elections, the bulk of which are in the large urban areas outside London and moving them instead to this year. These councils therefore join those contests, mainly covering the English shires, already scheduled for 2021.
This unprecedented decision to roll what are normally two separate local election cycles into one has implications for judging the results. This is because the two sets of elections were last fought in different years. The contexts are different.
Each year we estimate a national equivalent vote based on what has happened in local elections.
The 2016 vote, the reference point for the planned 2020 elections, was a poor year for the Conservatives and a decent one for Labour which won almost half the available seats. Weeks later we voted to leave the European Union.
In 2017, the year that gives the proper context to the English shire elections, the Conservatives trounced Labour and won six in 10 seats. Weeks later we voted in a general election intended to boost Theresa May’s slender majority, but which resulted in a hung parliament.
Sir Keir described these elections as "tough". If he is only referring to the precedent set in 2016 then I agree.
Most councils with elections in 2016 operate with "elections by thirds" and also held one in 2019, therefore.
These were six months before a general election which saw Labour’s red wall under siege and the party’s worst result since 1935.
There are more than 1,300 wards with elections in both 2016 and 2019 that give the reason for Sir Keir’s caution. In the first case Labour won 687 of those wards but three years later the rot had set in.
Labour voters began to turn away, not towards the Conservatives at this point, favouring instead the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Independents and smaller parties.
Hence, Labour nerves and the prospect that in metropolitan councils like Barnsley, South Tyneside, St Helens, and Sunderland where 2019 brought a double figure decline in vote share it might not recover to former levels. It is entirely possible that Labour could lose council seats in these and similar areas.
However, if Sir Keir is dampening expectations regarding the battle for the English shires then the threshold for success has been set extraordinarily low.
It is the Conservatives that have most to fear from these contests and probably explains why Tory co-chairman Amanda Milling is in expectation management mode by claiming that her party will be defending "an incredibly high base".
In 2017 her party gained almost 400 seats and overall control of nine county and unitary authorities, including the prize of Derbyshire directly from Labour.
It is highly likely that the Conservatives will lose ground in these areas, with Derbyshire returning to Labour and possibly Lancashire too. Labour did win one of the "county" unitary councils with elections in 2017, Durham, but its majority has become precarious because of councillor defections. Having lost three formerly safe seats (including Tony Blair’s old Sedgefield constituency) at the 2019 general election, the party cannot afford more reverses.
This leaves the prospect that both party leaders claim victory simply by cherry-picking different outcomes.
The Conservatives will say Labour shows little sign of recovery from the disaster that struck it in 2019. If Conservatives retain mayoral posts against the odds in the Tees Valley and West Midlands Combined Authorities then so much the better.
Labour will focus instead on any advances it makes in eroding Conservative dominance in the shires while no doubt lauding the leadership qualities of re-elected high-profile mayors in London and Greater Manchester.
Smaller parties like the Lib Dems and Green will join the spin frenzy.
New leader Ed Davey’s task is to re-build the local councillor base, destroyed during the Cameron/Clegg coalition years. Conservative opponents in counties like Cambridgeshire may feel the pressure but Liberal Democrats are hopeful too of hurting Labour in Gateshead, Newcastle and Sheffield.
But here the absence of any pre-election agreement with Greens could split the vote. The Green party could advance in councils like Bristol, where the whole council is being elected, and Solihull but too often an increased vote does not deliver more seats for them.
It is unclear what issues will motivate voters this time but for those that do participate there is plenty of choice. Electors may be voting for two councils in some shire areas. Elections are also being held for police and crime commissioners and let’s not forget a collection of mayors.
Faced with multiple choices some people will spread support across different parties and Independents. Spending more time than is usual in their immediate neighbourhoods, voters may continue a recent drift towards Independents and locally-based parties.
Election watchers need patience this time. Few councils are counting overnight, although the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election should be a classic. Much of the counting will be done on Friday with some not beginning until Saturday and into Sunday.
The intermingling of two local electoral cycles means seat forecasting is riskier than usual. The Conservatives seem certain to lose county council seats, but these might be offset by gains in areas that proved fertile at the general election. The most optimistic estimate says a net gain of about 100 seats but that could easily turn into a net loss of 150.
Labour might lose some ground in the metropolitan boroughs and county unitary authorities. Whether losses here are compensated by gains in the shire counties rather depends on whether the Liberal Democrats make a mockery of their dire poll ratings and stage the long-awaited comeback.
The best prospect for Labour requires both the Conservatives to implode and Liberal Democrats to struggle in which case a net gain of over 200 seats becomes possible.
As always the Liberal Democrats are difficult to forecast, dependent upon how many voters protest against the two main parties. If that happens the party might see a net gain of 50 seats.