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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.