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Labour's somewhat hollow triumph

Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand.

New Statesman
Glasgow, the fightback in Scotland starts here. Photograph: Getty Images.

Thursday was a great day for Labour activists across the country, bringing about results which meant one of the most enjoyable election nights in years. Within moments of the polls closing, the Tories very own in-house omnishambles, Sayeeda Warsi, was dispatched to TV studios to tell the nation that Labour needed 700 council gains to be able to call the night a success. Later she tried to increase the number to 1000 - a figure that was nigh on impossible to achieve. 

That early attempt to move the goalposts was telling. Few Labour people seriously thought that 700 gains was achievable, but the Tories evidently did once they saw their vote collapsing on election day. In areas where Labour needs to win in 2015 (Thurrock, Norwich, Harlow, Basildon, Reading, Southampton, Plymouth) the results were overwhelmingly positive. But the gains weren't just confined to the south - in the north west, Labour took Wirral, and wrestled Sefton from No Overall Control for the first time since 1986. In Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield (to name just a few) huge chunks of the available seats fell to Labour.

And then Glasgow. We were never meant to win. Privately some senior Labour people had begun to concede it more than a week before election day, with the SNP tidal wave engulfing another Labour stronghold. But this time it was the final one. If Glasgow went SNP, the independence drumbeat would have intensified. As it is, Labour has shown that it can beat the SNP, with organisation, fresh candidates and an acknowledgement that the party has changed. Their result was remarkable - to paraphrase a much mocked Ed Miliband speech - the fightback in Scotland starts here.

And I still haven't even mentioned Labour's fantastic results in Wales, picking up Cardiff to strengthen the party's Cymru hegemony.

So Labour retained Scotland's biggest city and won the Welsh capital, but the same can't be said in England, where of course Labour lost the London Mayoral election. I've discussed why I think Ken lost already, but even here a certain defeat that the polls thought would be huge turned into a late night semi-squeaker for the Tories - with some on team Boris seemingly thinking that Boris had lost. That was a testament to the campaign's focus on the ground game, and the determination of Labour activists - both repaid by the election of 12 London Assembly members, and the ousting of Tories like the odious Brian Coleman.

But what cost Livingstone the election - at least numerically, rather than politically - was turnout, and the positive election results throughout the country don't mask the sapping effect that low turnout has on our democracy. Politically, neither party has yet been able to sufficiently enthuse the electorate enough to get past the "you're all the same" factor. Yet Ed Miliband appeared to realise the potency of this existential threat to party politics, when even after such strong results he talked of those who didn't vote at all.

The other side of the low turnout coin is cultural and organisational. As Karin Christiansen rightly pointed out on Friday, "Low turn-out is a problem in general. Both we and the Tories are stuck in low turn-out election strategies, with a race to the bottom: whose vote gets suppressed least wins." Does that sound like the kind of politics you want to be involved with? I know I certainly don't. But that kind of culture pervades all parties now - and is the context in which backlashes like Bradford West should be viewed. 

Recently a party member in a traditionally safe Labour area told me their local organiser "loved low turnout elections" and that the same organiser had told them Labour's aim in elections was "to discourage and demoralise our opponents' supporters from turning out while reminding enough of our voters to do so." It's a style of politics that seeks to drive up apathy. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most commonly heard replies on the doorstep is "you're all the same"?

Getting past that apathy is the real challenge for Labour and Miliband - putting down roots in areas that make Labour support more secure and long term, precisely because the party is in touch with the electorate, campaigning with them rather than just at them, and speaking to them on their terms. Only by making such a shift in the way the party campaigns can Labour stop the race to the bottom and help restore the nations's faith in politics and the ability of the left to change the country.

The alternative is more potentially hollow victories like this week. They may augur well for the future - but just as plausibly the success may be fleeting. Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand - and unless we act soon, the rising tide of public discontent will wash us all away.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.