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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.