A Labour Breakthrough?

Britain’s Labour Party made big gains yesterday in the local government elections and today party activists are celebrating what they see as a breakthrough for leader Ed Milliband.

And there is much to celebrate for them. Not all results are in from the elections for 128 English councils, 32 Scottish councils and 21 Welsh councils but it looks like Labour will capture more than 700 council seats from the Conservatives and wind up with 39 percent of the national vote.

More promising for Labour, the party has won control also of councils in the south and east of the country away from their traditional heartlands, places like Exeter, Southampton, Plymouth, Thurrock, Harlow, Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

But is this the breakthrough? It is often a mistake in British politics to project from mid-term local elections and assume the same result can be repeated for the national parliamentary contest.

Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair suffered mid-term local election setbacks as prime ministers before going on to win subsequent general elections. In both cases the defeats of the governing parties were severe.

In 1981, two years after losing office to Thatcher, Labour gained 988 seats, with the Tories losing 1,193. In 1999, William Hague’s Tories gained 1,348 seats and Tony Blair’s Labour Party lost 1,150 seats.

In the national contest turnout is higher as are the stakes. Midterm elections are treated by many voters as an opportunity to grumble (1). By a big margin voters still believe the coalition government’s spending cuts are necessary (by 54 percent to 27 percent according to one recent opinion poll).  But they are allowed to express their dislike of the medicine.

The fight now for Labour and the Conservatives is surely going to be over Liberal Democrat defectors. Which side they swing to could well determine the next general election.

1. Re-reading this posting I think “grumble” is too weak a word for how many Brits feel about their plight now. “Shriek”, I think in hindsight, would have been a more accurate verb.