Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Of springboards, breakthroughs and other nonsense

An interesting set of elections really. Labour lose Scotland, lose their majority in Wales and get shoed in England but manage to avoid meltdown; the Liberal Democrats win Eastbourne but suffer losses everywhere else, and the Tories apparently fail to achieve a breakthrough. This at least is what seems to be the accepted wisdom. I'm not entirely convinced by this: I think the Conservatives did really very well, with one area of concern. I think the Liberal Democrats did as well as could be expected given their limitations, and I think the Labour Party did poorly, and that avoiding total catastrophe is not the same as doing well.
For a while now the consistent complaint about David Cameron's Tories is that he is failing to take the north with him - that Notting Hill charm doesn't play so well north of Watford. Well, I'm not sure that that's quite right. What the results in the north look like to me is that, whereas the Conservatives have done very well in London and Birmingham, elsewhere in the country they remain much stronger in the country than in the towns: the Conservatives have more councillors and councils in the North East and in Yorkshire than either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems - it's in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle that they have yet to make an impact.
Does this matter? Up to a point of course it does. It's not a good thing for a party that seeks to win elections to have large areas of the country where it doesn't even have a presence. Is it fatal, as is being suggested by straw-clutching Labour supporters? No, it isn't. Just as the Labour Party will unquestionably be decimated in the south and midlands, the Conservatives are always going to do better in some areas than others - it's ridiculous to think otherwise. The Tories performed extremely creditably in the elections - gains of 898 seats are remarkable. The perceived wisdom was that anything less than 500 would be a failure, anything over 700 a triumph. 900 looks pretty good on that measure.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they are now hit by two factors. The first is that 26% is actually not a bad result for a third party. The problem is that they have ambitions to be a second party - at least in local government. These elections have at least demonstrated that there remain practical constraints to their ambitions - and that a quarter of the electorate looks like both the ceiling of Liberal Democrat support, and the floor of Labour support. The second is the effect of the Cameron love-in. This has two effects: both a direct switch in the vote from Liberal Democrat to Labour, as seen mainly in the south-west (which has potentially dire portents for the general election) and the second is the reduction in anti-Tory tactical voting. This sort of tactical unwind could have serious implications for the Liberal Democrats in a General Election.
What to do? Well, the move to drop Ming Campbell is the most obvious reaction. But what could either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne do? Clegg, in particular, would be a great threat to the Tpries - he's is articulate, bright, young and more genuinely liberal than most of his party - but isn't that a problem for the rest of the party? The Lib Dems have long been an uneasy coalition of a left-wing opposition to Labour in the north and a centrist opposition to the Tories in the south west. Choosing Clegg would be tantamount to taking sides - and not the side favoured by much of the membership.
So to Labour. While one has to admire the chutzpah in claiming that this result represents anything other than a disastrously bad one, is there an element of bunker thinking on show? In other words, has the Labour Party started to believe its own propaganda? The precedents for this are not encouraging to say the least. In any event, the architect of the new Labour machine is going - announcing the schedule of departure on Thursday. The last of the Blairite big beasts go with him. The list of the fallen, Blunkett, Milburn, Clarke, Prescott and Reid, is formidable - there will be a dearth of 'big names' in the Brown cabinet that cannot be made good by a clutch of Milibands and a Balls.
Ultimately, however, one suspects that a poor result in this election has long been factored into the calculations of the next step - although whether Brown will have any room for manoeuvre is debatable. What should be causing concern is the extent to which the Labour Party is being hollowed out - the party organisation no longer exists in a meaningful sense across much of the country. The long-delayed rise of the Conservatives means that they are finally taking back some of the votes lost to Tony Blair in the heady days of 1997. It also explains the marginalisation of the protest vote repositories in UKIP.
For the first time in a decade the Conservatives look a plausible party of Government. They have reconquered their home territory, and have started the slow process of encroachment onto Labour's. Whatever Labour supporters might say, only one party headquarters would have been celebrating these results.

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