How well does Labour need to do in the local elections?

The party needs to win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009 and make significant gains in the Midlands battlegrounds.

After a troubled fortnight for Ed Miliband, today's local elections will determine whether the narrative moves back in his favour. The county councils were last fought in 2009, at the nadir of Gordon Brown's political fortunes, so Labour is certain to make gains but how many it makes and, as importantly, where it makes them will be the key test. 

At a minimum, the party needs to make net gains of around 250-300 and win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. A good result would also see it make significant gains in the Midlands battlegrounds of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire and challenge the Tories for control of Cumbria. Labour should also hope to dent the Tories' majority on councils like Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk and win the mayoral contests in Doncaster and North Tyneside.

Held in areas long dominated by the Conservatives, the county council elections are an imprecise guide to Labour's national standing. As Tom Watson has pointed out, "80% of the areas facing local elections this year elected a Tory MP – compared to just 11% electing a Labour MP – making their seats nearly doubly overrepresented and Labour seats massively underrepresented."

Labour's vote share last time round was just 13 per cent, so the party should hope to get close to or match the 26 per cent it polled in 2005. The ComRes poll earlier this week put it on 24 per cent, two points ahead of UKIP. Retaining that advantage will be crucial if Miliband is to continue to present Labour as a government-in-waiting. 

As well as the local elections, today also sees the South Shields by-election, triggered by David Miliband's departure to New York. Although there is no question of Labour losing the seat, where it holds a majority of 11,109, the party is engaged in extreme expectation management.

Today's Guardian reports on speculation by Labour figures that UKIP could "possibly" win the seat. It won't. It does, however, appear increasingly likely that UKIP will finish second, perhaps even bettering the result it achieved in Eastleigh (where it polled 28 per cent), its strongest by-election performance to date. Given that the party didn't even put forward a candidate in 2010, that is some measure of its dramatic progress in the last year. 

Ed Miliband waves as he makes his way to do a speech on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war