There is something slightly ridiculous about the routine spin that defeated parties have to deploy after local election results. Losing, they say, is less of a set-back than it looks; the other side’s victory is not all that victorious.
That has been the message from the Tories and Lib Dems this morning as they survey the damage from last night’s ballot-box pummelling. There is an element of truth in the assertion that mid-term polls always inflate anti-incumbent feeling. Local factors aside, the question such a poll implicitly asks of voters is “do you like the government?”. The question in a general election is “will you change the government?” They are similar, but not the same. Last night’s swing to Labour doesn’t demonstrate any national appetite to have Ed Miliband as prime minister (just as equivalent polls in the past have never signalled the country’s readiness to install Neil Kinnock, William Hague or any other unsuccessful opposition leader). Many Labour MPs and supporters wll be encouraged that Miliband has struck a note of humility and caution in his response to the results so far:
I also want to say something to those people who voted for other parties and the many people who did not vote at all … I will work tirelessly between now and the next General Election to win your trust … I know we have more work to do.
Anything more triumphant than that would have earned skeptical groans. The realism is itself a sign of progress in Labour's approach.
So what is the significance of last night’s vote? Just a couple of thoughts to begin with.
First, Labour will be relieved to see that their national share of the vote roughly reflects recent opinion poll trends. As recently as January of this year, the Tories had a lead over Labour – the enduring impact of the so-called “veto effect” from David Cameron’s sabotage of a Brussels treaty in December. Since the Budget, Labour has pulled ahead and opened up some more robust leads, even touching double digits on a good day for Miliband. Lurking in the back of most Labour minds is the fear that the lead is soft, likely to melt in the heat of a campaign. Party strategists would have preferred a vote share above 40% last night to really demonstrate that the advantage was setting, but they’ll take 39%. Much less than that and it would have been very hard for Miliband to claim any serious momentum in the country.
Second, the comparison with previous mid-term hammerings for incumbents doesn’t quite stand because there is a coalition government and a hung parliament. That means the Tories still need to be advancing in parts of the country to stand a chance of winning an outright majority at the next general election. Any kind of retreat by the Conservatives raises questions about David Cameron’s national strategy. Indeed, those questions have been raised pretty vocally overnight. Patience is wearing thin with a leader who has yet to demonstrate that he has a plan to mine hitherto undiscovered seams of potential Tory support. It is worth adding too that in last year’s local elections the Conservatives actually gained seats, largely because a lot of their voters bothered to turn out. The best explanation is that they came to the ballot to reject AV and threw in a vote for the Tory council while there were there.
That leaves many Tories thinking that in order to consolidate and advance, they need issues that animate the party base, fire up traditional Conservative sentiment (and play on anti-Lib Dem feeling). That perception will be strengthened by a relatively hearty vote for Ukip last night. So Cameron is going to come under a lot of pressure to act and sound more like an “authentic” Tory, which is a very hazardous proposition. The Conservatives didn’t miss out on a majority in 2010 because people thought they were insufficiently obsessed with crime, Europe and immigration.
If Boris Johnson is re-elected as London Mayor, as seems the most probable outcome, Cameron’s headache simply gets worse. Ken Livingstone’s likely defeat has been so well advertised that no-one can see it as an “upset” for Ed Miliband. It is priced into expectations now. But people – well, Tories in particular – will see Boris bucking the national trend, persuading a leftish metropolis that he’s alright really and beating a weak Labour candidate. That highlights the question of why Cameron keeps failing to do the same.
This is all exceedingly bad for the Lib Dems. In recent weeks I’ve noticed more confidence on the Labour side that Nick Clegg’s party is irredeemably stuffed. Tories too are privately saying that they can’t really see any viable electoral escape routes for their coalition partner. In the past, whenever a delegation of irate MPs has challenged Cameron to choose between his coalition partners and his party, he has sided with the latter. The pressure on Cameron to assert a more robust Conservative identity – which comes increasingly from liberal Tories as well as the right – combined with a growing Labour appetite for “finishing the job” of crushing Clegg means the third party could be about to face a murderous squeeze.