IT’S that time of year once again for our political parties - with the clock ticking all the way to Thursday, May 2.
Will the Conservatives keep a firm stranglehold on Worcestershire County Council on local election day or will UKIP, Labour or even another political party come from afield to give them a bloody nose?
Political Reporter Tom Edwards explores the key battlegrounds across Worcestershire where this year’s eagerly-anticipated contest will be won or lost.
IT’s been a long time since 2009, when County Hall last staged an election count amid the dog days of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government.
The political backdrop of the day resulted in a humiliating wipeout of catastrophic proportions, with Labour losing 14 of their 17 seats, including former leader Peter Pinfield.
It resulted in the Conservatives controlling 42 of the 57 seats, a massive majority which makes it almost certain David Cameron’s party will keep power whatever happens next month.
The bitter taste of defeat four years ago was felt keenly in Worcester, where it lost previous strongholds Nunnery and Rainbow Hill.
Privately, Labour figures are talking up their chances of making gains in Worcester by re-claiming some old stomping grounds.
Hopes are highest in Rainbow Hill, where Conservative Councillor Allah Ditta will defend a majority of just 103.
Coun Ditta made headlines around the world when he was secretly recorded threatening to dig up a dead man’s body last August.
He went on to apologise for the outburst, which was sparked after a family refused to pay for work Coun Ditta said he did on their father’s grave at the private muslim cemetery in Perdiswell.
Labour are hoping to reclaim the seat by fielding Councillor Paul Denham, the deputy Labour group leader at Worcester City Council, against him.
And to complicate matters even further UKIP is fielding a candidate, the party’s main Worcester organiser, Carl Humphries, as well as the Greens and a left wing campaign group, Trade Unionists and Socialists Against The Cuts.
The other main seat to watch will be Nunnery, where former city mayor Councillor Lucy Hodgson was controversially de-selected as the Conservative candidate.
Tory activist Keith Burton, a former police officer and Worcester city councillor, managed to get his name on the ballot sheet over her, meaning Coun Hodgson will be standing for the party in The Chase, Malvern instead.
Back in 2009 Nunnery was gained by the Tories by 127 votes, and a major scrap is expected this time around given the national political backdrop.
Labour are standing deputy Mayor Councillor Pat Agar, who represents Nunnery on the city council, against Mr Burton while the Greens and BNP are also featuring on the ballot sheet.
Elsewhere in Worcester, a key battle will be played out in Claines, where the Tories believe they can make a gain. The seat is currently Lib Dem controlled, with Councillor Sue Askin sitting on a 641 majority.
But one year ago, during the elections for Worcester City Council, Coun Askin lost her Guildhall seat to Conservative Mike Whitehouse.
The Tories, who pulled in over 1,000 votes in Claines in 2009, have now put Coun Whitehouse up against her once again in an attempt to pull off a repeat.
The city’s 10 seats at County Hall are sure to be heavily influenced by UKIP, which has candidates in seven of them, while the Greens and BNP also have a strong presence.
THE seven-strong Lib Dem group are the biggest opposition party at County Hall, largely because of their success in the Malvern district.
Of the eight Malvern-based seats at County Hall, half of them belong to Nick Clegg’s party, and it was five before Councillor Clive Smith defected to the Greens last November.
The area is largely expected to once again become a Lib Dem v Tory battle given the way voters have tended to go in the past.
A key battleground is Tenbury, where Dr Ken Pollock is defending a Tory majority of just 358.
In 2009 the Lib Dems got 1,400 votes here to finish second, but the party is not fielding a candidate at all this time around, a major boost to the Conservatives.
The focus will now shift to the UKIP challenge in Tenbury, where activist Malcolm Delingpole will hope to make a breakthrough, as well as Labour and the Greens.
The district is guaranteed a new councillor in Croome following the death of veteran Tory Bob Bullock last month, with Bronwen Behan, a current Conservative Malvern district councillor, hoping to retain it.
There will also be newcomers in Hallow following the retirement of Tory Councillor Alwyn Davies, and The Chase, where Lib Dem Councillor Steve Brown is stepping down to run a publishing business.
All three areas are being eyed up by UKIP, which is hoping to exploit Nigel Farage’s poll ratings by making serious in-roads into the traditional Tory vote.
Elsewhere in the Malvern district, the Lib Dems expect to retain Powick, Malvern Trinity and Malvern Langland.
THIS is one area where David Cameron’s party should have no fear - a traditional Tory heartland where the Conservative vote traditionally rules.
Even if the Tories suffer in Worcester and Malvern, it does expect to hold onto swathes of seats in Wychavon, particularly in rural areas of the district.
Of the 12 Wychavon-based seats at County Hall the Conservatives hold 10.
Many of the party’s big hitters call it home, including Councillor Adrian Hardman, the leader, who represents Bredon, and Councillor Bob Banks, cabinet member for finance, who is based in Evesham South.
One new politician is guaranteed in The Littletons after Liberal Democrat Councillor Tom Bean decided to step down.
Back in 2009 Coun Bean secured a tiny majority of 269, just about edging about the Lib Dems, and another key battle is expected here, with both sides seriously looking to win it.
A crucial factor could be UKIP, as Nigel Farage’s party has seven candidates across Wychavon, which could dilute the traditional Conservative vote.
The areas most vulnerable to change include Droitwich East, where Conservative Councillor Pam Davey is defending a slim 158 majority.
The Liberal Democrats, by far the second best backed party in that ward, are once again putting forward Margaret Rowley, with high hopes on her overturning it.
A fascinating battle will also be played out in Evesham North West, where Councillor John Smith, one of the Tories best known figures and the cabinet member for transport, is defending a 370 majority.
The Lib Dems, second in 2009, are again standing a candidate, but unlike four years ago UKIP is now also on the ballot sheet, with Ellis Tustin’s presence sure to have an impact.
Seats in other parts of Worcestershire could also have an impact on the end result, with the Conservatives vulnerable in parts of north Worcestershire.
Both UKIP and Labour have blanket coverage in many parts of the north, as well as independent candidates featuring, which could see votes split.
One key battleground will be St Barnabas, in the Wyre Forest district, where Tory Councillor Anne Hingley is defending a 232 majority.
Independent Community and Health Concern, which was second in 2009, is again fielding a candidate in Caroline Shellie, while four other names feature on the ballot sheet, including UKIP.
The Tories will hope to retain key seats in Redditch, but UKIP and the BNP have recruited candidates in an attempt to grab some votes away, which could let in the likes of the Labour Pary.
But it would be a surprise if there are considerable changes in Wyre Forest or Bromsgrove, even if the Conservative support is reduced.
Current state of play
Lib Dems 8
Green Party 1
Wythall Residents 1
Vacant seat 1