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23 May 2014updated 24 May 2014 7:40am

Labour’s little wins are not adding up to victory

There are heaps of voters who blame the governing parties for their problems. Not enough of them are looking to Ed Miliband for solutions.

By Rafael Behr

Labour are making gains, which doesn’t mean they are winning. Ed Miliband’s party has nearly 300 more council seats than it had on Thursday morning. So progress. But no-one I have spoken to seriously claims these results put the opposition on a safe trajectory towards a general election triumph.

The reason lots of people voted Ukip will be analysed enough over the next few days – and will no doubt give Labour people ample cause to demand the things they were demanding anyway from the leadership, chiefly “boldness”, “clarity” and “radicalism”. (I have yet to meet an MP who wishes the leader would be more timid, opaque and incremental.)

In terms of Labour’s vote share, with less than a year before a general election, what matters is that not enough people who hate the main incumbent governing party express that feeling as endorsement of the main opposition party. Plenty think the Tories are a problem; too few think Ed Miliband’s Labour party is the solution.

Labour’s beacon of strength is London, where Ukip were less competitive and where there was plenty of low-hanging Lib Dem fruit to be plucked. There are a couple of other explanations around as to why the capital turned red. It is liberal-left and cosmopolitan by inclination, which is the blend of Labour brew that Miliband serves with ease. Also, crucially, the London Labour party has lots of members – it is a healthy part of the organisation and was well-organised.

Where there are more boots on the ground, more doors are knocked on and more support mobilised. Labour’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation is generally reputed to be in good shape and the capital benefited disproportionately. (Manchester too, by some accounts). But that is less encouraging for Miliband than it might be. It suggests gains made in spite of his performances rather than because of them. Some GOTV is mining core support and mobiliing Clegg-hating refugees who have been on board since 2010. Some is communty activism that indicates a bona fide renaissance of grassroots Labour. In neither case does it reflect a broad shift in the national mood towards a change of government, nor is it a sign that Britain’s huge standing army of sceptical and disengaged voters is getting the Miliband message.

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A fierce argument is already under way behind the scenes about the focus and organisation of the campaign, much of which is displacement activity to avoid confronting the problem of Miliband’s failure as an evangelist. It is true, as some MPs have grumbled, that Labour’s upper echelons were relaxed for too long about Farage because he was doing such sterling work undermining David Cameron and nibbling away at the Tory vote in key marginals. Yet it is also true, as senior figures in the campaign point out, that Labour would hardly have transformed its position in the past fortnight with an abrupt lurch into foam-flecked and transparently panic-induced cynical anti-immigration rhetoric.

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The reason the opposition is febrile is not a fear that it is campaigning with the wrong script. There is plenty of policy and, underpinning that, a plausible analysis of the salient issues in the lives of target voters. There really is a cost if living crisis, so it makes sense for the opposition to talk about it. MPs have various reservations about the emphasis and preferences about what needs to be said more and louder. That is inevitable in any campaign. But those reservations are exaggerated because it is easier to complain about the message than it is to confront the issue of an unconvincing messenger.

Miliband’s lack of campaign mojo was a source great comfort to the Tories in the past week. It was remarkable to see how senior Conservatives sustained a buoyant mood while marching towards a poll where they entirely expected to be butchered. The reason is twofold. First, they know that incumbents can be punished in local and European elections and still win general elections within a year. Second, they are starting to see how the whole Farage phenomenon can work to their advantage – or, rather, how it might be contained.

The key is drawing a sense of equivalence between Ukip as the crazy insurgent opposition and Labour as the flaky old spendthrift opposition, with Cameron as the only grown-up in the middle.

We saw the outline of this argument made by the Chancellor in a speech at the CBI last week. To his right, he depicted the forces of rabid anti-European Farageism, determined to pull up the drawbridge against modern civilsation. To his left, he conjured the spectre of Socialist Milibandism, itching to snuff out Britain’s enterprising spirit under a heap of taxes, price controls and clunky regulations. This configuration will be expanded into a wider general election campaign: Ukip and Labour will be presented as peddlers of different brands of snake oil, while Cameron is the only qualified physician in the house with – it will be claimed – a proven record of healing a crisis-stricken economy.

It has potential as a bid for re-election (although Labour strategists naturally insist it will unravel on contact with the reality of how meagre the rewards from a dodgy millionaire-friendly recovery will be for most people). The big problem for the Tories remains matching a theoretical appeal to the many voters who don’t trust Labour to run the economy onto actual constituencies where the arithmetic stacks up in Cameron’s favour.

In that respect, the latest batch of local election results doesn’t offer much inspiration. Not only are Ukip taking votes from the Tories, they are picking up votes of non-Tories and Labour defectors that the Tories need to recruit. Conservatives have sounded firm on immigration and eager for a European referendum, yet people who are receptive to exactly that message in principle, don’t want to hear it from Cameron. Tory MPs privately admit that on the doorstep no-one believes it. The dilemma remains much as it has been for the duration of this parliament. Cameron badly needs the votes of people who respond to Ukip’s agenda but the more his party sounds like Ukip, the less credible becomes its claim to be the sensible force of centre-hugging sound economic stewardship.

In the last week of the campaign, moderate Tories were glad to see Farage put on the spot about his distaste for living in proximity to foreigners in general and Romanians in particular. Much of the research effort feeding media reports of extremist views and far-right flirtations in Ukip’s ranks has come from CCHQ. Downing Street wants Farage to be contaminated with the whiff of disreputable xenophobia, if not outright racism, but also wants it to be someone other than senior Tories saying it.

This is why it is madness for Conservative back benchers to start once again raising the prospect of a pact with Ukip and why cabinet ministers have thoroughly rejected the notion. The No10 strategy is to make Ukip look like a fringe phenomenon – a pressure valve that releases public anger and frustration in local and European polls but is unsuited to the business of serious government. (Judging by recent precedent, it is a safe assumption that somewhere in Farage’s new haul of councillors will be people with appalling comments and sinister pamphlets lurking in their back catalogues and social media profiles.)

Of course, this is all before we know the results of the European elections. Labour nerves will be calmed if Ukip do not top that poll; and rightwing Tory tempers will be all the more stoked if coming third brings no consoling humiliation for Miliband.

But, from what we have seen so far, the local poll appears to confirm what Labour strategists have been saying for years: the four-party arithmetic and the unresolved problems with the Conservative brand make it hard to see where Cameron finds enough seats to form a majority. And Labour’s pedestrian advance outside the capital appears to confirm the Downing Street  analysis, which is that the country is not turning with any enthusiasm to Ed Miliband – and the opposition look low on ammunition. Cameron may not be making obvious gains; that doesn’t mean he isn’t winning.