LONDON // The Labour party looks poised to win hundreds of seats in local elections across Britain, yet could still end up being perceived as the polls' big loser.
Despite the fact that the party enjoys a double-digit lead in opinion polls after a dreadful few weeks for the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the most high-profile contests do not look likely to go Labour's way.
London's Conservative party mayor, Boris Johnson, is the favourite to defy odds and hang on to his post after an ill-tempered, mudslinging campaign (much enjoyed by Londoners) with his main rival, Labour's Ken Livingstone.
And in Glasgow, Scotland's traditional Labour heartland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) hopes to wrest control of the council despite currently having only 20 seats to Labour's 39.
"It would indeed be ironic and rather sad if all the headlines are made by London and Glasgow at a time when we look set to sweep the board in many councils across the country," a Labour official said.
"We feel, in fact, that we will remain the biggest party in Glasgow, although whether or not we retain overall control is unclear. The last few days of campaigning will be crucial.
"As for London - well, it's a personality thing between Ken and Boris. Admittedly, at the moment, Boris seems to have the upper hand."
Opinion polls in London put the Mr Johnson six points ahead of Mr Livingstone, both of whom rank among the best known political personalities in Britain, where they are almost universally referred to by their first names.
The Conservatives' poll lead in London compares quite dramatically with an advantage of between 11-13 points that Labour currently enjoys over the Conservatives nationally. It is a lead that is expected to win Labour 600 or more seats, about 400 of them from the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, whose popularity has tumbled since it went into coalition with the Conservatives after the general election two years ago, are bracing for a slew of losses on top of the hundreds they lost in council elections last year - up to 300, perhaps, of the 777 seats they are defending.
It is all adding up to a feeling of trepidation among the three major UK parties with the elections being dubbed by political pundits as "Black Thursday" for all concerned.
As a sideshow to the main event, 10 English cities will also be holding referenda on whether or not they should have an elected mayor, à la London and Liverpool. The city councils currently elect the mayor in those cities.
The main business of the day, though, will be contests for some 5,000 council seats in England, Scotland and Wales. David Cameron, the prime minister, has tried to put the emphasis on Conservative "competence" in running local authorities while Labour has stressed its role in protecting council jobs and services.
But, except in areas where there are pressing local issues or mayoral elections, most people will simply vote according to their feelings towards the parties performance in central government.
That could spell trouble for the Conservatives a month after a budget whose provisions have been seen as an attack on the elderly and after a string of gaffes over issues such as: the extradition to Jordan of the extremist preacher Abu Qatada; the mishandling of a threatened strike by fuel tanker drivers; and a much-criticised bid to limit tax-free donations to charities by wealthy philanthropists.
Labour, meanwhile, suffered an embarrassing electoral setback in a March by-election in a supposedly safe parliamentary seat in Bradford - won by maverick politician and one-time Saddam Hussein apologist, George Galloway - while its leader, Ed Miliband, commands little popular support.
Unless Labour can start picking up clumps of seats from the Conservatives on councils in the southern half of the country, its claim to be a government-in-waiting will not be credible.
Meanwhile Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, can only cross his fingers and hope for the best after seeing support for his party slump by more than half since the general election, to 11 per cent or less now in opinion polls.
Even the buoyant SNP have had their problems with Allison Hunter, the party's leader in Glasgow, under attack from all sides after telling one interviewer that she had no policies to implement if the party succeeded in ousting Labour.