Yesterday I gave an indication of how to judge the Conservatives’ performance in the council elections. Naturally it is implicit that some of the indicators of a bad night for the Conservatives would be a good night for Labour. So to be merely meeting expectations, Labour should gain Trafford, Croydon, West Lancashire and Redbridge. Perhaps Milton Keynes and Swindon. Some tidying up in places they already run – such as Merton and Kirlees – but currently as minority administrations.
A good night for Labour would involve them gaining such places as Peterborough, Barnet, and Hammersmith and Fulham.
At least that would be a “good night” against the expectations of their derisory opinion poll lead.
A good night for an opposition party heading for Government in a year’s time would regard those as minimum requirements. If we consider the local elections in 2004 the Conservatives performance was extrapolated to be 12 per cent ahead of Labour according to national share of the vote. If we reflect on the 2005 General Election result we can see that that margin was not enough. Or in 2000 the Conservatives under William Hague were eight per cent ahead of Labour in national equivalent vote share. Fat lot of use that was to Mr Hague when he was trying to become Prime Minister a year later. Similarly Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party with their three point leads in 1991 and 1986 were not enough. By contrast the Labour Party had a 14 per cent lead in 1996 which proved rather more sustainable.
Or let us cast our mind back to the very satisfying 1978 council election results. The Conservatives swept to power in such places as Sandwell and Oldham. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives did a bit less well in the 1979 General election – but well enough.
Some of us are not only interested in council election results as an indicator of General Election results. But for those who are, the message is pretty clear. If an opposition party is to win the general election the following year they need to win the local elections by a very clear margin.
So a good result for Labour – as a historic measure – would be something dramatic. A double figure lead. Sweeping to power in places such as Hillingdon and Bexley.
In some ways Labour may take rather too much succour from their total tally of gains as it will doubtless include a chunk of Lib Dem seats. Rallings and Thrasher project Labour gains of around 500 seats – although the Conservatives are projected to make net losses of around 200. But how relevant would those gains be? Suppose, for example, that Labour eradicate the 13 Lib Dem council seats in Islington? Lots of punching of fists in the air. But the council is Labour anyway. The two parliamentray constituencies in the borough are Labour anyway. Or if most of the surviving Lib Dems councillors in Hull are wiped out it would not be terribly relevant to Labour’s General Election chances. If anything, too much Labour glee at achieving one party states might strike some as unattractive.
Labour gains from the Lib Dems in Haringey or Southwark or Bristol could be more relevant to Labour’s General Election prospects. Certain wards in those authorities are in constituencies with Lib Dem MPs.
So Labour will be looking for gains from the Lib Dems in the right places.
Then Labour will also have to worry about the far left. Tower Hamlets will be an important test. Of course Labour should be able to win there. There is also the challenge from the Green Party and the Trade Union and Socialist Coaliiton – who have a lot of candidates. Might UKIP gain some seats from Labour in, for example, Barking and Dagenham? Then we have Harrow that Labour won in 2010 – but they might lose this time due to a huge split. There are particular difficulties for Labour in Bradford. On the other hand, if Labour lose the odd seat to a Trotskyist or a hippy in an area where they have a huge majority, while gaining the odd seat from the Lib Dems, it won’t make a huge difference.
So a good night for Labour would mean not only gains of over 500 seats but making them in the right places.