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.

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.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.