Ed Miliband speaks to journalists outside his house in north London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour gains in target seats offer party cause for hope

The party is on course for its best result in London since 1998 and has won in some key general election targets.

Today did not begin well for Labour. A Ukip surge in Rotherham saw Nigel Farage's party gain nine seats and knock out the Labour leader and deputy leader. In Thurrock, the party's number two general election target, Ukip gained five seats and deprived Labour of overall control. Serial rebel Graham Stringer took to the airwaves to declare that Ed Miliband lacks "an immediate appeal to the electorate" and described the party's campaign as "unforgivably unprofessional". The narrative quickly became one of defeat and disappointment.

But as the day has continued, the picture has improved for Labour. The party made dramatic gains in London, winning the Conservative fortress of Hammersmith and Fulham ("David Cameron's favourite council") along with Merton, Croydon and Redbridge, and is on course for its best result in the capital since 1998. Sadiq Khan, who ran a radical and energetic campaign, will rightly enjoy plaudits for the performance. Taking Cambridge (another general election target) from the Lib Dems was another early success.

Ukip's gains in the north are notable, insofar as they show Farage's party replacing the Tories as the de facto opposition in some areas, but they tell us little about the general election result. There is no prospect of Ukip winning safe Labour seats next year. What matters, as Labour strategists emphasised in advance, is how the party peforms in its general election targets.

Labour hasn't done well enough to justify hopes that it will achieve a majority at the general election. It failed to take must-win councils such as Swindon and Walsall, and suffered a swing to the Tories in the bellweather seat of Gloucester. But it has performed well enough to suggest that it will be competitive in 2015. For the first time in 14 years, Labour has won control of Amber Valley after Ukip split the Tory vote, while also topping the poll in target seats such as Lincoln, Harlow, Cannock Chase, Stevenage, Hastings (where the Labour group is now the largest ever) and Crawley.

The national projection from Sky News puts Labour on 308 seats, 18 short of a majority and not where the party needs to be at this stage (although Lord Ashcroft's 26,000 sample marginals poll, released tomorrow at 1pm, will be a better guide). Given the likely swingback to the Tories before May 2015, Labour needs to be on course for a majority now if it is to be confident of victory. But if the party can draw the right lessons from where it has performed well, most notably in London, it could still win in 2015. For a first-term opposition, that is not a bad position to be in.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.