Monday, 9 May 2011

Holding Labour to a high bar

Well, let's see how the reality of Britain's 'mid-term' elections played out after my curtain-raising preview last Thursday afternoon.

First: Labour, led by Ed Miliband (above). How did they do in jumping the admittely high bar I set them last week? This was, if you remember: (a) win 1,000 English council seats; (b) help prevent a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament; (c) win an outright majority in the Welsh Assembly; and (d) try to help the 'yes' campaigners avoid getting completely buried in the Alternative Vote referendum.

So how did they do? Well, it was four strikes: no, no, no and no.

That's a pretty bad run.

Labour did, to be fair, make quite a lot of progress. If we run through the positive side of the equation, they gained 857 council seats (just about what I predicted); came just a whisker away from an overall majority of 31 in Wales (they now hold 30 seats); and at least, giving the conclusive thrashing the 'yes' campaigners got on AV, won't be losing any seats to the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

But even here, there are a number of great big flies in the ointment. Most of their gains were in the North of England, where they re-established their urban bases and ran the Liberal Democrats out of town. In Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle, the Lib Dems took a fearful pasting that they will struggle to recover from - if they ever can. But in the South, it was a different picture. Let's go to Swindon, Reading, Harlow and Dover - places that I've talked about before on this blog, and towns where Labour has held seats as recently as last year. What happened here? Well, a little bit of progress - gaining two seats in Swindon, three in Reading, three in Harlow, and four in Dover. But there was no real sense that Labour would win those Parliamentary seats back in a General Election: only Reading isn't under Conservative leadership today. That's a crushing blow to hopes of a majority Labour government any time soon. In Wales, similarly, almost all of Labour's progress was against the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. Where they faced off with the Tories - in Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Aberconwy and Clwyd West - they got just about nowhere. They need some of those seats, too, if they're to return to power on their own.

In Scotland, Labour took a phenomenal beating that will leave scars on the party's psyche for years to come. They got absolutely battered in their own back yard, in a result far, far worse than even the most optimistic SNP supporter dared dream of. I thought there was an outside chance of the nationalists being able to have their referendum with Green and Independent support at Holyrood. Never did I think things could get quite so bad for Labour north of the border. A fatal mix of complacency, poor leadership, a 'British' message about the Tories in a Scottish election and a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote stoved in Labour's electoral position. Their vote count didn't actually fall that much (by 0.5 per cent in the constituency part of the battle), but as other unionist parties retreat, the SNP advances. The whole debacle must raise questions about whether Labour can ever again rely on so many Scottish MPs at Westminster - in the event that Scotland stays in the United Kingdom at all, which must be now in doubt.

I'll have a look at the other parties tomorrow. But for now, there's a really important lesson here that's being overshadowed by the Liberal Democrats' grotesquely bad and almost pathetic performance. In their present shape, with their present image and in the present electoral landscape, Labour's chances of gaining an overall majority at the next UK General Election are not exactly zero, but they're certainly not approaching evens.

Tomorrow: the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.