by David Talbot
Amid the breathless, endless, commentary on the rise of UKIP, scant attention has been levelled at the only other serious contender for 10 Downing Street come May 2015. Whilst Conservative losses, and substantive ones at that, were long-foreseen they did of course have the furthest to fall, having swept the previous cycle in 2009. The true test was for the much-heralded one nation Labour. Heavy caveats were potted throughout the media by Labour personnel in the days leading to polling day; these elections are taking place in rural, affluent Tory-dwelling shires, eighty percent of the counties holding elections are represented by a Conservative MP, and control of four Councils and two hundred net gains is the target. Well, in their heart of hearts Labour’s strategists will know that last Thursday was not the triumph needed.
Despite matey assurances to the contrary, last Thursday’s results do not readily translate into the sixty seat Labour majority the party is seemingly on the cusp of securing. Although Labour picked itself up off the floor following the dark nadir of 2009, final national voting projections put the party on a mere twenty-nine percent – which is, ironically, exactly the polling figure Labour slumped to in the annihilation of the 2010 general election. That this appears to not be causing considerable alarm amongst the party faithful is troubling, and to say it is not enough for an opposition in mid-term should be so obvious as to be insulting to highlight.
There is no disguising Labour’s underwhelming performance. Despite sporadic advances in battleground seats such as Hastings, Crawley and Stevenage the results do not suggest that Labour will outright win the next general election. Gaining a mere two councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, only just, represents a worryingly poor return. Many party activists, somewhat rightly and understandably, are so consumed by the immediacies of their locale that they have swapped the instant gratification of publicising the fruits of their labour for any nuanced analysis of Labour at large. That the party now enjoys a sixty-two seat majority in Durham is indeed joyous, but that it failed to win in Staffordshire or Lancashire, and is still represented in the low single digits in vast swathes of the south, should temper that cheerfulness somewhat.
This failure to gain a consistently strong bedrock of support across all sections of the country is deeply troubling for Ed Miliband, and ought to be causing deep unease and soul-searching amongst his inner team. Overall, the party holds less county council seats than it did in 2005 – the scene of our last general election victory. And the protest vote, invaluable to any party of opposition, has bypassed the left and firmly implanted itself with UKIP.
An inevitability about the next general election has not yet been built. In 1997 everyone knew Blair was about to become prime minister. In 2010, everyone knew that whoever the next prime minister was going to be it was not going to be Gordon Brown. The case for 2015 has yet to be made.
At present it is too easy to ignore Ed Miliband. He took to the election campaign with commitment, for sure, but it was lacklustre, low profile and ultimately not good enough. If a member of the public can name just one of the six bills the Labour leader set out in his “Shadow Queen Speech” last week than they are a more informed voter than I. The public will know that his vision for Labour is not New Labour, which will naturally win him plaudits amongst the left and much of the party rank and file. But the public also voted for Labour under its New Labour guise on three successive occasions. To signal to the public that you are deliberately moving away from a formula that, for all its right and wrongs, put Labour in power for over a decade is folly. As the Conservatives have just buried their thrice-winning leader, so too has the Labour movement of theirs amongst their collective psyche.
Faced with a government that will increasingly limp pathetically towards the next general election at a time of grave economic crisis, Labour ought to be further ahead in the polls and notching up considerably better results than already seen. One nation is a bold political project that has promised much; as the election comes into view it will have to start delivering.
David Talbot is a political consultant