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Local elections: Labour isn't where it needs to be to win

At this stage of the electoral cycle, the party needs to be performing much better to justify hopes of a majority in 2015.

Ed Miliband addresses delegates at the annual CBI conference in November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Enough results are now in for us to conclude that this hasn't been Labour's day. The BBC's projected national share (which simulates what would have happened if elections had been held everywhere yesterday, rather than just in the Tory shires) has the party on just 29 per cent, a rise of only six per cent since the wipeout under Gordon Brown in 2009. The Conservatives are four points behind on 25 per cent, UKIP are on a remarkable 23 per cent and the Lib Dems are on 14 per cent (their worst ever showing in a local election, although, significantly, their vote held up in their parliamentary strongholds). Were these figures replicated at a general election, the result would be a hung parliament with Labour two seats short of a majority. Given that oppositions typically enjoy large poll leads at this stage of the electoral cycle (no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead), and that governments usually win back support in advance of the election (as even Brown did), Labour needs to be performing much better if it's to stand a chance of governing alone after 2015. 

As I wrote yeterday, for a "good" result, the party needed to win back most or all of the four councils it lost in 2009: Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. We're still waiting for a final result from Nottinghamshire, but so far Labour has gained only Derbyshire, with Lancashire reverting to no overall control and Staffordshire remaining Tory. After losing 291 councillors the last time these councils were fought, it's possible that Labour's gains won't even pass the 200 mark today.

Amid the gloom, there are some glimmers of hope: Labour gained 12 councillors in true blue Hertfordshire, gained nine in Norfolk and performed credibly in bellwether seats such as Harlow, Hastings and Stevenage, but the results do not suggest a party moving back towards power. 

After a troubled month, which saw the first hints of a Tory recovery since the 2012 Budget, Ed Miliband needed a strong set of results to give him some political breathing space. But while far from disastrous, his party's performance will only revive the question: why isn't Labour doing better? Its main centre-left challenger is locked in government with a right-wing Conservative Party, the economy has barely grown since 2010 and the Tory brand has been comprehensively retoxified. Yet Labour still appears incapable of generating popular enthusiasm among those who should be embracing it. Rather than assuaging Miliband's malaise, today's results will only deepen it. 

Update: Labour has just won control of Nottinghamshire, one of the four councils it lost in 2009 (it also regained Derbyshire), but this remains a below par performance. 

Update 2: With 291 gains (admittedly far more than I originally expected), Labour is roughly back to where it was in 2005 - a reasonable performance. But at this stage of the electoral cycle, a four point lead over the Conservatives in the projected natonal share (the Tories were 15 points ahead of Labour in 2009) is too small to justify hopes of a majority in 2015. We're still in hung parliament territory.