When the electoral pendulum swung between just two parties the fate of one tended to be a mirror image of the other: when Conservative fortunes rose those of Labour fell and when the electoral mood swung against the Conservatives, Labour was the beneficiary. As a third major political force entered the electoral fray, and met with some partial successes, this certainty started to evaporate. Given more choices the electorate has expressed its preferences or its protests in different ways in different places at different times. The erosion of Conservative support has neither been uniform nor in one direction. In some areas the party has resisted electoral hostility better than in others. Where it has lost ground Labour has sometimes been the prime beneficiary, elsewhere it has been the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists. The outcome of local elections, therefore, has often been unpredictable.
In this chapter we wish to chart the ebb and flow of electoral fortune for each of three main political parties—Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats and their various previous incarnations. In the following chapter we turn our attention to the performance of the Nationalist parties and other political groups which have played a greater or lesser role in local electoral politics during the past two decades. Specifically, our concern is to describe the successes and failures for each party, the areas and type of local authority where it has made the biggest impact and what factors appear relevant in its local electoral development.
The Conservative party will be discussed first since for many years it was the most dominant. For that reason its recent failures have been dramatic and have had a profound effect upon the map of local authority control. Next, the focus switches to Labour, which has seen its fortunes ebb and flow, but is currently enjoying perhaps its best phase in terms of local government representation. For each of these parties local electoral performance has frequently been related to its control or not of national government. The fact that there is regularly a local protest vote against the party in power at Westminster is well known, though in recent years even this picture has altered as more and more voters appear