Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Local elections: small earthquake, some Liberal Democrats hurt

So. Britain's local elections.

Last year I set Labour a high bar that they completely and utterly failued to clear - leading the present writer to conclude that they had pretty much no chance of forming a majority government at the next General Election.

This time? They did rather better. They took more than 800 council seats from their rivals, held on to Glasgow (where the Scottish National Party foolishly announced that they might take control) and - most importantly - started to appeal to voters in the South of England. They took Harlow, where until 2010 they (rather uncertainly) held the Parliamentary seat - and that's exactly the sort of place, and precisely the sort of voters, they need to win back if they are truly to pose as a national force. The man and woman in the Harlow Water Gardens (above) are the most important people in British politics right now, and they seem willing to give Labour at least a hearing. Let's not get carried away with this progress, though. It was more of a B+ than an A. Labour's vote share, at 38 per cent, was okay, but no triumph. They were coming from a low base. Many of their gains were made in their historic strongholds, especially Wales. They failed to prise Boris Johnson's fingers off the London mayoralty - though they did better than they thought they were going to.

Labour in Opposition? Well. There was nothing on the scale of the Conservative triumph of 1968, which was the first indication at the ballot box that the Tories were indeed going to win the next General Election. Or the torrent of voters that rained down on John Major's derided and dishevelled administration in 1993 and 1994. So. Labour: not bad. Must try harder.

The Conservatives felt, for the first time, the hot wind of public disapproval. Six weeks or so of Keystone Cops-style sliding around on a sequence of unlikely (and often pasty-shaped) banana skins did them no good. But much, much more importantly, Britain is back in recession - and shows little sign of getting back to the prosperity of 2007 any time soon. Everything else - and especially the siren Tory voices urging the Prime Minister to turn rightwards - is just fluffy (or not-so-fluffy) distraction.

And the Liberal Democrats? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It was no wonder that Nick Clegg looked sad. Said he was sad. Practically radiated sadness. He must be realising that he has to change something - shake up almost anything - or his party are going to get absolutely obliterated come the main event in 2015 (if the Coalition makes it that far). His party's losses again amounted to nearly half the seats they were defending. True, they often did better where they have sitting MPs - in Eastleigh, say, or in Portsmouth. At this rate of attrition, the party will cease to exist at local grassroots level by the end of the decade. That's just no way to be going on. It's no wonder that the Lib Dems are rumoured to be considering an early exit from Coalition, well before the next election - and that they're willing to abandon Lords reform in return for the Tories delaying boundary changes that will hurt them the most. If they're to survive at all, they're going to need both of those eventualities to ride to their rescue. Last year I said that the party might end up meeting in a phonebox. I'm very much afraid that it's going to be a shoebox. Or a matchbox. Which is a pity, really.