Ed Miliband, and his wife Justine, leave after voting in the local and European elections at Sutton Village Hall this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why a strong result in the local elections is so important for Labour

The party needs large gains to demonstrate that it can win the general election and to compensate for possible defeat to Ukip in the Europeans. 

For months in Westminster it was assumed that David Cameron would be the leader under pressure on the day of the European and local elections. The prospect of the Tories being beaten by Ukip and finishing third in a national election for the first time was expected to send his party into a tailspin. But today, against expectations, it is Ed Miliband who faces the greatest challenge. 

Weeks of careful expectation management have ensured that a third-place finish in the Europeans has been priced into Cameron's political share price, with potential rebels appeased in advance. Over the same period, the narrowing of the national polls has reassured Conservative MPs that they can win the next general election, while inspiring fear among their Labour counterparts. "We’ve been defying gravity and now we’re falling to earth," one of Miliband's MPs tells me in my politics column this week. 

Among the PLP and some shadow cabinet members, there is consternation at what many regard as the party's failure to take the attack to Ukip earlier in the campaign. Others have been dismayed by a campaign that included the much-derided "Un-credible Shrinking Man" election broadcast and a poster erroneously attacking the coalition for raising VAT on food (which is exempt). Miliband has announced no shortage of radical policies - the banning of exploitative zero-hours contracts, a cap on rent increases, a 48-hour GP guarantee, the linking of the minimum wage to median earnings - but many feel these have been undersold by the party at large and, in particular, the shadow cabinet. One MP told me that some members had effectively "gone on strike". 

For all of these reasons, a good result in today's elections, and the locals in particular, is essential. Should Labour be beaten by Ukip in the Europeans, becoming the first main opposition party not to win the contest since 1984, the party's strategists will note that the election is rarely a reliable indicator of the general election result and often produces anomalous outcomes. In 1989, the Greens finished third with 15 per cent of the vote. In 1999, the Tories won the contest but suffered a landslide defeat to Labour two years later. Ukip won 16 per cent of the vote in 2004 and 17 per cent in 2009 but polled just 2 and 3 per cent at the subsequent general elections. Defeat to Farage's party in what David Axelrod calls the "age of alienation" does not mean Labour cannot triumph in 2015.

But in order to make this argument convincingly, the party needs a strong result in the locals. Labour's test of choice is how well it performs in those seats it needs to win to achieve a majority next year. It is here, one strategist tells me, that the party has concentrated its field resources, which allowed it to win a "1992 share of seats on a 1987 share of the vote" in 2010.

In an attempt to manage expectations, Labour says that "a good night" would see it gain 150-200 seats (and 25 per cent of the vote in the Euros). But the pollster John Curtice argues that nothing less than gains of 475-500 is acceptable for the main opposition party at this stage of the electoral cycle.

Today, Labour needs a strong result both to demonstrate that it can win the general election and to act as a firewall against the backlash that would follow defeat to Ukip in the Euros. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.