06 May 2011

Local elections: will Labour bloggers pls refrain from the Kool-Aid...

Well, most local election results, and the Scottish and Welsh results, are in now (but not the AV referendum - that's announced tonight) so time to have a round up. In fact, I'll focus on English local elections and probably follow up about Scotland and Wales separately (if I feel I can contribute anything sensible to what's already been written on those elections).

The first thing is that despondent Labour bloggers thinking of drinking the Kool Aid (the worst example of this I've found so far is on the terminally pessimistic - and misnamed - Labour Uncut) need to take the bottle back to the shop, buy half an aspirin instead, suck on it, and think things over.

Yes, the Tory vote held up at about where it was in last year's election. But the Fib Dem vote has collapsed. We've gone from a 3-party system in local government to 2 parties and a bit player (plus the Greens, who made some tremendous advances).

So what did you expect? Huge decreases in the Tory vote? That would be more likely if Labour and the Lib Dems were knocking spots off the Tories. We'd probably have seen that if this was a minority Tory govt.

But instead we have a Tory-led govt with Fib Dem collaborators - and the collaborators were punished. The net effect of all the switching between different parties was that the Fib Dems were down by about 10% from last year, Tories unchanged, and Labour up 10%.

And that's a great result.

If Labour gets (say) 39% of the vote at the next general election, and the Tories get 36%, it will emerge as the largest single party - and probably win a small overall majority. Even with the boundary changes, and even with the reduction in the number of seats.

What more do Labour supporters want?

Well, plenty more, of course, and it would be foolish to deny that the Labour machine is not firing on all cylinders yet - Sunny Hundal identifies a lot of the problems in this excellent post for Liberal Conspiracy. My own interpretation of why Labour didn't do even better would stress the following:

  • the party is still largely a policy-free zone. The policy review is scheduled to run until autumn 2012, at least. If you haven't got much of substance to put to the electorate, it puts you at a disadvantage.
  • You can win a big protest vote even if you don't have detailed policies - but you need to give people a sense that you're on their side to do that. Huge numbers of people are pissed off about virtually every aspect of this govt. UK Uncut and False Economy have been leading the fight against the ConDems; Labour has dipped a toe in the water, but hasn't really done anything of substance, and indeed has sometimes been openly hostile to the anti-cuts movement. So, not surprisingly, Labour is still part of the problem, not the solution, for many people.
  • Many Labour bigwigs were out campaigning for No2AV - in open opposition to Ed Miliband, and in support of Dave Cameron. Remember the classic game Downfall? "Be careful - you could be helping your opponent as well as yourself!" Probably a couple of percentage points of that Tory result, at least, is due to the hard work of misguided Labour politicians and activists. Well done guys and girls...
  • There is still a huge debate going on within Labour about whether to target the Fib Dems or the Tories as the enemy. I'd like to think that political activists were capable of fighting on 2 fronts at once, but maybe not. So, although the Tories took quite a lot of flak at the time of the VAT rise and the Budget, the crossfire seemed to thin out in the campaign itself. Again No2AV had a lot to do with this because their obvious enemy was Nick Clegg and hence this spilled over into the local election campaign.
Of these points, if the policy review is any good it will put paid to the problem of having no policies(!) And it's in Labour's own hands whether it provides a convincing 'Plan B' alternative to the cuts or not. Neither of these will happen overnight, but the direction of travel needs to be a lot clearer - and I believe, WILL be a lot clearer - by May 2012. The No2AV effect of confusing the campaign and boosting Cameron is a one off, presumably - even the most dunderheaded No2AV activists will now return to the fold.

Which leaves the question of whether to attack the FibDems or Tories. BOTH, obviously (doh!) but bear in mind that the lower the Fib Dems go, the higher the Tory support will be - other things being equal. And of course vice versa. Fib Dems at 15%, Tories at 36, Labour at 40 or so is a little tight for winning a majority at the next general election, but still fine for Labour. Labour at 40 with the Tories on 30 and Fib Dems on 20 would be much better under first past the post (which we're stuck with), of course, but at the moment that Fib Dem vote is the softest vote (so it seems), and better to win by annihilating the Fib Dem vote (even if the Tory core vote is rock solid) than to try to appeal directly to floating Tories, fail miserably, watch the Fib Dem vote creep back up and end up with a rerun of 1992 or something close to it. You take votes from whereever the hell you can get them. It's as simple as that.

So, by no means a perfect night for Labour in England. But a good one, whatever people try to tell you.

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