The counting is still underway in several councils, so we don’t have the final figures yet. But on what we know already we can start to assess Labour’s performance.
In short, for Miliband this election has been a bit like that famous bacon sandwich – while most people would have relished it, he’s made an almighty mess.
As I write, Labour have gained 270 councillors and 6 councils. It sounds good when you look at it out of context, and it allows the Opposition’s talking heads to speak of “hundreds of new Labour councillors”, but consider the circumstances.
We are four years into a deficit-cutting government, one in which the Conservatives are unable to do everything they would like because of the need for coalition. We are four years into endless Labour campaigns predicting economic and social disaster, not to mention the large campaigns on the so-called bedroom tax. Moreover, the last time these council seats were fought was on General Election day 2010, with Labour at its lowest point for decades.
With all those factors in his favour, Miliband has failed to deliver anything impressive. Indeed, Labour’s results are as bad or worse than those achieved by the doomed Tory leaders of the Blair years.
For months the Opposition has dismissed the steadily declining lead in the polls as inaccurate or mistaken. Now we have some real electoral data to assess – and the BBC’s projected vote share is strikingly similar to those polls Labour pooh-pooh:
If the election results bucked the polling trend, Labour might have some cause for hope. As it is, they appear to confirm the trend – a trend which has seen Labour’s lead eroded into a neck and neck race.
As my colleague Harry Phibbs wrote in his exploration of what would make a good result for Labour, Rallings and Thrasher were looking at a total gain of about 500 seats. They’re still well short of that figure. As every Tory spokesman is pointing out this afternoon, the Conservatives are still the largest party in local government, a remarkable position after four years of coalition.
It’s true that they have made a net gain of five councils, including some that really sting like Hammersmith and Fulham and others, like Merton, which they ran already as minority administrations. But in their real targets, the places they claim they intend to win parliamentary seats, they simply haven’t performed. Stoke is a good example – Miliband himself visited, and also did that car crash radio interview, but the Tory position ended up stronger after voters had their say. Marginal councils like Trafford, where Labour needed four seats to take control, they fell short.
While Labour’s performance in London was relatively strong, outside the capital they have suffered from a new challenge – UKIP. As soon as Sunderland reported its results last night it was clear that in some areas Farage was delivering, at least in part, on his threat to eat into Labour’s vote. While their vote share hasn’t translated everywhere into council seats, their number of second places has rattled Labour MPs.
John Mann, Graham Stringer, John Healey and Simon Danczuk all questioned Miliband’s strategy. Unnamed senior figures and shadow ministers complained of a leadership which ignored good advice and common sense. Even Tessa Jowell, preaching a message of loyalty, suggested he should never eat a sandwich in public again.
Miliband, habitual visitor to difficult situations, is in another fix. So far his leadership has been marked by empty rhetoric and dire predictions which have collapsed as soon as they came into contact with reality. Now he has fallen on his face in the local elections, despite great expectations, and his party seem increasingly to blame him.
Mess up early in a Parliament and your MPs might think you will turn things round in time. Mess up less than a year before the General Election, and MPs start to worry you might cost them their seats. Other than eating only in private from now on, what can Ed do to start looking like a winner?