Saturday, April 07, 2007

May 3 and beyond

Today's column in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph aims to catch-up on what happened while I was away and look ahead to the local election campaign and its likely aftermath. Here it is in full. It is also now available as a Podcast.


The Tories say they have a "mountain to climb" in the North of England. Labour are bracing themselves for heavy losses more or less everywhere. The Lib Dems bravely claim there are no "no-go areas" for their party. Sound familiar, anyone?

Excuse me if I experience a slight feeling of déjà vu when it comes to this year's local election battle.

The two main parties appear to be playing down expectations, doubtless in the hope that things will turn out better than anticipated. The third is playing them up, in the hope that the voters will take them seriously.

But as ever, the trick with this sort of pre-election positioning is to try to separate the spin from the reality.

What seems beyond dispute is that the Government is in for a hammering as voters vent their frustration at the sense of drift that has characterised Labour for the past year.

Last September, following the failed coup attempt against Tony Blair, I wrote that if the Prime Minister was still in place by time of these elections, the party would pay the price.

As it has turned out, it appears to be a price the party is prepared to pay in order to allow its most successful leader ever a dignified exit at a time more or less of his own choosing.

But whether that is how it will be seen by the hundreds of Labour councillors, Scottish MSPs or Welsh AMs set to lose their seats on May 3 is another question entirely.

The local councils are one thing. Labour would doubtless like to win back cities like Newcastle, but it won't do any lasting damage to the party's national powerbase if it doesn't.

Local government has, in any case, nothing like the power it had when I first started covering local elections two decades ago.

The Scottish and Welsh bodies are a slightly different matter, though. They do have significant devolved powers, as Welsh Assembly leader Rhodri Morgan's recent decision to scrap prescription charges showed.

Furthermore, because most seats in the devolved bodies are coterminous with Westminster constituencies, there is much more of an interplay between Labour's performance in Scotland and Wales and its electoral prospects UK-wide.

I must confess to being surprised that Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs have been prepared to put up with a situation which is likely to see their party's powerbase in those areas significantly eroded.

If, for instance, a Labour parliamentary constituency ends up with a Lib Dem MSP, it creates a situation in which Labour's hold on the Westminster seat can be steadily undermined.

It was for this reason that I expected Scottish and Welsh MPs to be in the vanguard of a renewed attempt to force Blair out well before we got into the local election campaign.

But they bottled it, and in my view, that is something they will fairly shortly come to regret.

So, I believe, will Gordon Brown. The prevailing consensus throughout the past few months has been that the Chancellor was happy to let Mr Blair "take the hit" for the expected May 3 carnage.

If that is the case, I think that he was taking an extremely defeatist view about his ability to restore Labour's fortunes if and when he finally takes over.

If Mr Brown truly believes that he is the man to renew Labour in government, he should instead have taken the view that the sooner he took over, the better for the party's prospects.

The more electoral damage that is done to Labour under Mr Blair, the more poisoned the chalice that Mr Brown will eventually inherit.

Assuming, that is, that he does inherit. The fortnight since this column last appeared has seen a further ratcheting up of the pressure on South Shields MP and Environment Secretary David Miliband to throw his own hat into the ring.

It no longer seems possible to take at face value Mr Miliband's denials of last autumn, when he declared that he was "neither a runner nor a rider for any of the posts that are being speculated about".

His failure to kill the current wave of speculation has led to suspicions in the Brown camp that he is, at the very least, still pondering a bid.

One Brown ally said last weekend: "Miliband knows exactly what he is doing. He could quite easily say specifically, `I won't stand against Gordon' or that he is far less experienced than Gordon - something he couldn't go back on. But he doesn't."

Mr Brown, meanwhile, is in an increasingly invidious position. Like the long-distance-runner who has spent too long anxiously looking over his shoulder, his position seems to weaken with each week that goes by.

Notwithstanding its historic import, his decision to announce a 20p standard rate of tax in the Budget appears to have won him few friends and the row over the 1997 pension fund grab has been deeply damaging.

Labour has a perfectly respectable story to tell on this, which is that an anomaly in the tax system needed to be removed in order to release funds to help the many, not the few.

Instead Brown's strategy seemed to be firstly to try to conceal the evidence that he ignored civil service advice, and then when that failed, spin a cock-and-bull story about how the CBI encouraged him to do it.

It is hard - very hard - to escape the conclusion that this is exactly what Mr Blair intended when he decided to "play it long" and drag out his departure until this summer.

Messrs Brown and Blair were united on the campaign trail for one last time last week as Labour launched its local election push - but it is hard to see who they were trying to convince.

The old double act has served Labour well over a decade or more, but it has long since run its course.

And the real story now is not what happens in the days and weeks leading up to May 3, but what happens in the days and weeks immediately afterwards.

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Honey Weeks said...

I think that Blair is so annoyed with Brown that he is prepared to threaten Labour's re-election chances rather than let "this meddlesome priest" (Thomas More) inherit his legacy. Either this is all very personal, or there is something very wrong with Brown behind the scenes...Perhaps its like the Kennedy family?


Christopher said...

It was, of course, St Thomas a Beckett of blessed memory who was the 'meddlesome priest', not More, who was not a priest.

RedEye said...

Local government elections matter slightly more than Paul suggests, when successive poor performances (or outright thrashings) in local elections weaken a party's activist base. The ex-councillors are disillusioned when they've lost their allowances (and ability to influence things), the activists are less motivated when there are fewer (if any) councillors defending their seats, and there's a general blow to morale.

It didn't do the Tories any good to lose all their councillors in seats such as Stevenage in the 96 local elections, and many of Labour's more unexpected gains (Hove, Gedling, Broxtowe, Gillingham) were foreshadowed in the 95 local elections.

Similarly, even before the thrashings meted out by the electorate in the mid-90s, the weakening of the Tory activist base accounted for the situation in 92 where the Tories had almost 8% more of the vote than Labour but came within just over 1,000 votes of a hung parliament.

What's more, quite a few of the Tory gains at the last General Election were by PPCs who were councillors in the constituencies they won(or were councillors before they were selected as PPCs). This echoed the 92 GE, where winning Labour PPCs who were councillors won, on average, an extra 2% swing.

And the LDs are particularly adept at building up a local government base to use as a springboard for capturing a Westminster constituency (if not always in one go - the LD local election victories in City of Durham and the Newcastle-on-Tyne seats led to a weakening of the Labour majorities in those seats which may enable them to win some - or all - of them next time round).

If anyone's at a loss what to do with their Easter Mondays, BBC Parliament is re-running the 92 GE coverage from 9am tomorrow.

grimupnorth said...

In a word, carnage.

Tartan Hero said...

The impact of Labour losing MSP constituency seats to the SNP will cause carnage in the run up to the next UK general election. So many MSPs share offices with MPs that the reorganisation and loss of income to pay leases will be telling but more importantly, Labour in Scotland will lose half their councillor base on 3 May. So no councillors and families to plead the MPs case on the ground, get the vote out etc. Labour activists are demoralised and can't see a way out, even with Gordon Brown as PM.

Praguetory said...

You're right about spin. I think that the Tories will continue to soft-pedal until the final week of the campaign - then I fully expect us to go for the jugular with an all-out assault. That's what I think we should do anyway.