Friday, 3 May 2013

Labour's baby steps are not good enough

So England's local elections made it a night for celebrating the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party - if you had a mind to.

But remember the bar we set Labour on Tuesday. That was for the party to win 300 council seats, and show that they could win in places from which they had retreated in disorder under Gordon Brown: Harlow in Essex, for instance, a 'must win' seat if they are to hope to govern on their own anytime soon.

How did they do? That's the real question. There's a psychodrama taking place on the Right of British politics, one we'll address in further posts, but it's Labour progress and Labour's presence on the ground which will decide who sits in No. 10 Downing Street after the next election. Remember that UKIP has only bought an admission ticket for national politics, and won as many seats as the Greens have, regularly now, for many years. And on just about any measure, Labour came up a little bit short short. The fog of battle has not yet lifted, but the party seems unlikely to make it to 300 gains. In Harlow (above), they made two gains out of the three seats on Essex County Council (PDF) that could have fallen to them, but they fell short in a third they might have claimed - all with the help of thousands of UKIP voters who siphoned support (for the main) away from the Conservatives. Essex as a whole warmed to the populist UKIP message, and not to Labour, which still has only nine seats on the council (compared to 42 Conservatives).

Labour did take some good steps forward, and it was by no means a disastrous night for them. They held on to a safe seat in the North of England, a seat where their vote held up fairly well. They pushed their drinks cabinet that little bit closer to the offices of real power in Whitehall among the streets of Hastings and Lincoln, where they picked up seats (for instance Lincoln Moorland) where they must do well next time. They gained control of Derbyshire, in general making up ground they lost so precipitously in their 2009 debacle. In general, First Past the Post looks to be helping them because they're able to focus their efforts on areas with vulnerable Conservative MPs, who must know look nervously over their shoulders at the UKIP insurgency.

But Staffordshire, at the outer edges of Labour's ambitions, stayed Conservative. Labour pushed  Warwickshire into no overall control, but couldn't take control of the council. Nor could they gain a decisive upper hand in Cumbria. They made six gains in Bristol, but weren't able to get close to controlling the council chamber there (though that was, admittedly, never really on the cards because the whole council wasn't up for election). 

Let's sum it all up. Labour is crawling towards power, shuffling forwards across the broken glass of low public esteem and trust. On this showing, they might well be the biggest party come the aftermath of the next General Election. The idea that anyone is going to win an overall majority has now been clearly exposed as a fantasy. But what sort of mandate would a Labour Government have if it won 33 or 34 per cent of the vote, when the Conservatives and UKIP had split over 40 per cent between them? Well, you could say the same sort of mandate that Margaret Thatcher had when she won a First Past and Post landslide in 1983. But that's another debate, for another day.

For now, our conclusion about Labour's path to power must be this: it's long, rocky and uncertain. And, as far ahead as 2015 at least, it may be leading nowhere at all.

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