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.

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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.