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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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