by Atul Hatwal
Last night Labour was busily managing expectations that 150 gains in the local elections would have constituted a good result. Naturally, the final haul is likely to significantly exceed that number, but it is quite extraordinary that a total as low as 150 gains was even vaguely plausible.
The last time most of these council seats were contested was on the same day as the general election, when Labour slumped to its second worst post-war result.
Inevitably the focus for much of the media has been Ukip but the obsession with Farage and his out-sized personality misses the most salient political point: Ukip only exist because Labour is not the vehicle for popular protest.
When Labour previously made the transition from opposition to government, it brought together a voter coalition that extended from the left all the way into parts of the centre right. The breadth of this coalition and its sheer reach wasn’t based on ideology or policy but emotion.
The feeling that voters who may not traditionally have been Labour supporters, could safely lend the party their votes, to teach the Tories a lesson. That even if they disagreed with some aspects of policy, they could confidently project their personal hopes and aspirations onto the party’s leaders and supporting Labour meant backing the winner.
The stardust of success is beguiling. It creates an aura of optimism that lowers voter reservations attracts support. Everyone loves a winner.
But this stardust is missing from today’s Labour party. And in the absence of a confident and successful opposition to challenge a tired and uninspiring government, fringe populism flourishes.
Labour has some successes to point to, notably in London. Taking control in places like Croydon, Redbridge and Hammersmith and Fulham are victories to be celebrated. But even here, it’s worth looking at the underlying driver for victory.
Yes, Labour got its vote out, but the story from too many wards across London is not of wholesale switching from the Tories to Labour but of Ukip cutting into the Tories’ vote and allowing Labour through.
Politics can be a strangely delusional business. If a Labour party supporter with a passing knowledge of past elections had been transported to another dimension immediately after the result in 2010, and then returned to these shores today, there would be no doubt in their assessment: Labour is not doing well enough to win next year.
With the polls already virtually tied, Ukip set to beat Labour into second in the European vote and Labour lagging the Tories by double digits on the economy and leadership, it is almost beyond obvious that the party faces a fundamental crisis.
Yet still activists, MPs and shadow ministers persist in the fantasy that all is fine, Labour is making steady progress and Ed Miliband will be in Number 10 next year.
For anyone who genuinely cares about getting rid of this incompetent and rudderless coalition, these herculean levels of self-deception are more infuriating than anything perpetrated by the government.
As bad as this Tory-led administration is, it is merely behaving to type. No-one would expect the scorpion not to sting, so ventilating endlessly about its poison is almost the definition of pointless.
Labour is the only party that can provide an alternative but is currently in thrall to the instant self-gratification of moral triumphalism and running scared from the tough decisions needed to convince the public that Labour can once again be trusted on the economy.
Decisions that would challenge some of Labour’s core constituencies, but also demonstrate to the public the type of leadership that a Labour government could offer.
Graham Stringer has been featured in the media coverage criticising Labour’s campaign and the uniform reaction on social media from Labour party afficiandos last night was that this was just Stringer being Stringer.
This how entrenched the self-delusion has become.
No comment was made at all on the substance of what Graham Stringer was saying. The points he was making about leadership, a European referendum and the lack of professionalism of Labour’s campaign were all blithely ignored.
Just because Graham Stringer sounds the alarm, doesn’t mean the ship isn’t headed for the iceberg.
These elections are the last major electoral test before the general election. There have been some welcome successes in London, but evidence from this morning’s interviews with senior Labour politicians is that the party’s self-delusion remains intact.
Unless this changes and Labour understands the need to broaden its base of support, reaching back into the centre and directly attracting Tory switchers, next year’s result will be truly dismal.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut