Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Reeling from the Blue-Nami

So. Britain's local elections. We marked your card last week with many of the crunch results to look out for. Now we can go through them, ticking off the points on the sliderule as we use our key contests as a way of measuring the state of the parties.

What did we say last week? Well, we advised you to keep a look out for the new Metro Mayor contests in the West of England and the West Midlands - the first a three-way contest between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, and the second a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives. Then we said: can Labour keep control in Derbyshire, Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and Nottinghamshire? Can the Lib Dems seize Somerset and Devon? In Wales, could Labour keep control of Cardiff and Swansea in South Wales? And lastly, in Scotland, how big was the Conservative move forward likely to be? Could they win scores of councillors, especially in places that they might aim to win in June's General Election?

The answers are as follows: the Conservatives, astonishingly, beat these tests in almost every single case, with one significant exception that we'll come to in a moment. They won both those Metro Mayor contests. Only just, to be fair, but they did it. Since we said last week that even getting close in the West Midlands would be a sign of a quite frightening Labour retreat, we're going to have to stick to our guns: they are in big, big trouble. Note, if you will, that Labour failed to get enough preferences in the final round from other parties to close up the gap between them and the Conservatives from first choices. Although the Supplementary Vote is a confusing system that makes voters guess who will get into the runoff, that still shows that the party is becoming pretty toxic. Does anyone really think that Liberal Democrat voters will look favourably on co-operation with this particular brand of Labour Party? You need to get out more if you do.

The English local elections were, if anything, more worrying for both Labour and the Lib Dems. Those council contests we said Labour had to keep their noses ahead in? They got kicked around in every single one. Northumberland: leapfrogged. Nottinghamshire: supplanted. Lancashire: beaten. Cumbria: the same. Derbyshire: from outright control to Opposition. And so on. Basically, they got hammered. Things seem nearly as bad for the Lib Dems, despite months and months of local byelection gains that now seem like they were caused by care, attention and activism rather than a genuine groundswell of sentiment towards the party. The Liberal Democrat vote did go up from the last time these seats were fought in 2013, it's true: but it often rose in the wrong places, away from the wards and councils they used to be able to target - in the South West, for instance. They did poorly even in Bath; they failed to get very far in Cornwall; they stalled in Somerset. You get the picture. They ought to be getting more and more concerned. What is happening is that their advance is being outstripped by the Conservatives' moves forward, powered as they are by voters fleeing the United Kingdom Independence Party in their droves. As and when UKIP collapses altogether (and they got almost entirely wiped out in these elections), this will get worse and not better.

In Wales, Labour showed a bit of fight. It was pretty much the only place where they did, so it was noticeable. Labour Wales is in intensive care, but it's not quite dead yet. In line with much polling evidence showing some of their core vote firming up as we approach the forced-choice moment of a General Election, and with all the data we have showing them doing better in cities than in towns and villages, they did okay in Swansea (above), Newport and Cardiff, unexpectedly holding most of their territory against what had seemed like a concerted Conservative challenge. They are helped by the continuing weakness of the Liberal Democrats, here as in England; and by Plaid Cymru's continued inability to stage any sort of breakthrough. It's also hard to tell whether the large contingent of Independents in Welsh local government (who did very well) are concealing an 'anyone but Labour' vote in June. If they are, then the Conservatives will perform as well as the polling continues to suggest, perhaps powering them to a historic seats victory here in June. These results suggest that some of their really ambitious targets - Newport East, Cardiff West, Cardiff South - might lie just outside their grasp as the Conservative vote surges outside of urban South Wales. But then again, the electorate in June will look very different. Labour got away with it this time in Wales, just as they did in the 2016 Assembly election. Sooner or later, the dam might break.

Scottish voters were treated to a strange sight: like an aligning of some far-distant stars or a solar eclipse, the Conservative advance here took no-one by surprise, but was still a startling and jarring novelty worth taking a precise bearing on. No-one should get too carried away about all this: getting a quarter of the vote just takes the Scottish Tories back to the kind of position they expected to sit at during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before their total wipeout in 1997. But gaining 12 per cent since the last time these wards were up for grabs (in 2012) means that they are definitely getting somewhere, especially as the Scottish National Party appeared to undershoot its local government performance over the last two years. Just as we see in the Scottish opinion polls, the utter hegemony of the SNP high tide appears to have passed. It might come back again. Their vote might stick where it is. But for now, Scots Conservatives have cornered the market in aggressive, assertive Unionism, and it's working. Take a look at where they could win seats: in South Aberdeenshire, in the Borders, in Perthshire, and in Moray (that last one's a bit of a stretch). They did well in just those places. Their vote is not only going up: it's quite concentrated, the key to success to elections held under First Past the Post. Talk of twelve or even fifteen gains in June seems absurd - akin to the athletic boasting of an out-of-condition middle-aged man who's just started going to the gym again. But they're going to win a few seats. That'll boost Theresa May's unquestioned supremacy even further.

Your basic takeaway might be this: the Conservatives are, for now, carrying all before them. The Tory tanks are just steamrollering everyone, everywhere. Though the SNP is for now resisting the tide, even their defences are clearly weakening. The great Labour Party of the twentieth century is threatening to come apart entirely. The Liberal Democrats are just too weak and too small to get much lift-off. UKIP are dying. In that vacuum, the reassuring and soporific figure of Mrs May only has to stand still to win almost every race by a mile. Before Thursday, we thought we knew all this. Now we do know. It's going to take a huge change between now and the next polling day to alter any of this. Maybe the expenses scandal will blow up and taint the Conservative campaign. Maybe something else will intervene. But if nothing changes between now and 8 June, a massive great blue combine harvester is going to shred its way through the political landscape. Don't be surprised at the barren, exhausted soil it leaves behind.

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