Round one to Miliband

Labour is obviously pleased with the outcome of last week's local elections - but the government is not as weak as it looks, writes Paul Demarty

Labour is back - that is the main story to come out of the May 3 local elections. Labour gained 824 councillors across the country, taking control of 32 local authorities.

The media would dearly love to sell this as somehow not enough; there are all manner of outcomes Miliband has to achieve to ‘prove’ he is capturing the ‘centre ground’ rather than simply preaching to traditional Labour supporters. On this score, even Tory bigwigs have had to concede he has done well. The gaffe of the day came from Sayeeda Warsi, Conservative Party chair, when she tweeted that Labour would have to take 700 seats to be taken seriously; and then hastily tried to up the arbitrary bar to a truly impossible 1,000, as Labour cruised towards her first target.

Labour took control of councils all over England and Wales - but it is those in the south of England, which are thought to have mysterious Labour-resistant qualities, of which the Labour leadership are clearly most proud. Councils in Plymouth, Exeter and Thurrock turned red, and Labour comfortably held Oxford too. Symbolically, the three wards up for election in Chipping Norton - the Oxfordshire market town, home to David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks et al - all went to Labour.

The expected nationalist breakthroughs in Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, effectively failed to materialise. The Scottish National Party failed to take Glasgow from an infamously corrupt, institutionalised and now split Labour establishment, although it did pick up Dundee. Plaid Cymru were outstripped, particularly in the south of Wales, by a resurgent Labour, which registered major gains in Cardiff, Port Talbot and elsewhere.

Coalition trouble

If it was a good day for Labour, it was a pretty awful one for the ruling parties.

The Tories lost 12 councils and 403 councillors. The Liberal Democrat cohort was culled to the tune of 329, though the party only lost control of one authority. This amounted to the decimation of much of its remaining footholds in the Labour heartlands, where once - it seems so long ago! - it could do fairly well by outflanking Tony Blair to the left.

Not surprisingly, many Lib Dems are unhappy with the way things are going, and the damage coalition government is doing to their party. Yet, as this paper has repeatedly argued, it is increasingly clear that there is nowhere else for them to go. To break with the Tories would trigger a general election, which would see them comprehensively wiped out; the leadership has little choice but plough on in the hope of some kind of electoral deal with the Tories at the next election.

The Tories, on the other hand, do not need the Lib Dems - but Cameron just might. The Tory rank and file are getting restive; they are starting to feel alienated from what they consider to be an out-of-touch, liberal clique at the head of their party. Nadine Dorries, a Tory hard rightwinger, got a certain amount of publicity for accusing Cameron and Osborne of being two posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk; numerous figures on the Tory right mutter about bleeding votes away to the UK Independence Party.

The solution in these people’s eyes is easy enough: ditch Clegg and co, and go to the polls with a hard Thatcherite programme - with extra anti-Europe and anti-immigrant chauvinism for good measure. In short, the British people are a bit nasty - and they want their Nasty Party back.

Tim Montgomerie, a former staffer at Conservative central office and editor of the Tory rightwing blog, Conservative Home, has knocked together an ‘alternative queen’s speech’ with 15 Tory dissidents. The content will surprise nobody - reduce top-rate tax on the basis of a thinly disguised Laffer curve, put in place a 50% turnout threshold for trade union strike ballots, referenda on Europe, immigrant-baiting and so on.

As a means to mass popularity, it is perhaps slightly dubious - although, as the rise of the US Tea Party movement shows, things can move pretty fast on the populist right. Ukip did well in some localities; but overall the vote for ‘fringe’ candidates was squeezed. Ukip and Respect aside, parties and individuals outside the ‘big three’ lost 200 councillors. For those who could be bothered to make a protest vote, it went to Labour.

Nonetheless, the Tory right is a more substantial threat to the government than the Liberal Democrats. The reason is simple - while the parliamentary Lib Dems will never eat lunch in Chequers again if they rebel, the likes of Dorries, David Davis and co will gain if Cameron comes to grief.

Against this, Cameron has the Lib Dems - but that may not be enough. He will no doubt attempt to meet these people halfway, and incorporate at least some of their reactionary gibberish into his operative programme. Above all else, however, he needs another ally with the institutional power to return his party to government, and keep his faction at the top of the food chain.

London calling

Here, we may turn to the one result which truly ‘bucked the trend’ - the victory, by the narrowest of margins, of Boris Johnson over Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral poll.

An anomaly it certainly is - Labour, in the same vote, took control of the London assembly - but one that the Labour right will not be too displeased with. It has been accounted for most commonly by stressing the personality-led nature of the contest: Ken, the plain-spoken lefty institution, versus Boris, the lovable posh-boy buffoon. Boris beat Ken because we like the cut of his jib, and because Ken’s reputation for honesty was severely damaged by revelations concerning his tax arrangements.

Indeed, such is the personality-led component of the directly elected mayoral system that, up and down the country, cities overwhelmingly rejected their introduction in referenda (the one exception was Bristol, where the ‘no’ campaign happened to be led by the Lib Dems ... coincidence, I’m sure). Cameron’s pitch - a Boris in every town - was met with widespread horror.

Yet what is it that drives the personality contest? Why, as soon as anyone says ‘Ken’ or ‘Boris’, do we instantly know we speak of Livingstone or Johnson? It is because they are named thus in every issue of Metro and the Evening Standard. It is the media which railroads a political contest into this sort of asininity.

And the media, it should be stressed, were absolutely behind Boris Johnson, every step of the way. Dodgy tax arrangements did not lead Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp to be hounded into the ground - he got away with it, in part due to sympathetic reporting. The media chose to beach Livingstone on this particular rocky shore, and chose to back the various Boris gimmicks.

The media did not support Cameron. The Guardian, The Independent and Daily Mirror obviously never would. The Murdoch papers, as I have argued previously, have turned on Cameron over the Leveson inquiry. The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, are sympathetic to the hard-right of the Conservative Party, and will be chuffed to bits with the strongish showing for Ukip. That leaves precisely no allies in the press - and where the press leads, TV news and the rest follow.

Cameron is probably in for a rough patch, then. A faction of his own party is gunning for him; sections of the Tory press are effectively in support, hoping to push Cameron further onto the hard-Thatcherite, chauvinist territory they favour.

Yet this weakness is probably temporary. Cameron may ride it out - just as he has dodged many bullets already. Then, as the prospect of an actual general election draws near, he can expect the Mail et al back on side - if it is him or Ed Miliband, the glove-puppet of the trade unions in the rightwing imagination, the choice is obvious. That appears to be the Cameron-Clegg strategy at present: press on, weather the storm and wait for better opportunities.

Likewise, jubilation in the Labour Party camp is likely to be muted in more sensible quarters. This was, after all, a local election, where incumbent governments rarely come out on top; Labour’s excellent result was achieved in the wake of a disastrous month for the Conservatives, on the worst turnout in a decade. The prevailing political mood is precisely apolitical - 30% of the population got out of bed to give the government a firm slap on the cheek; the rest are tired with the lot of them.

The underlying lesson is this: Labour has failed to reconnect with its base, because its bureaucratic leadership fears losing control to the local party organisations that could actually do so. Miliband is more vulnerable to the fickle moods of the press than any Labour leader in history; but it is difficult to see him taking the steps necessary to insulate himself a little more.