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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.