An election without a victor

Much like an alcoholic on New Year’s Day, Britain’s politicians woke up from the latest round of local elections looking hungover, feeling horribly disoriented, and desperately trying to work out what happened the night before.

With 128 English councils, 32 Scottish councils, 21 Welsh councils, and the London Assembly up for election, May 3’s polls were a crucial test not merely for David Cameron’s struggling coalition, but also for Ed Miliband’s opposition Labour Party.

There’s no doubt that the result was dramatic. Losing 405 councillors and ceding control of 12 councils, Cameron’s Conservatives were left shame-faced as Labour seized 823 new council seats and a controlling presence in 32 additional councils. The Liberal Democrats – junior partners in the governing coalition – were all but obliterated. 336 councillors lost their seats, leaving the party at the lowest ebb in its history.

But if the results seem dramatic, one really big question is still hanging in the air: who really won?

Labour?

The obvious candidate is the Labour Party. For Ed Miliband, there’s no question that his party is the real victor. Pointing to major gains in Birmingham, Reading, Cardiff, Norwich, and Plymouth, he attributed Labour’s sweeping gains to popular dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the ongoing economic crisis. “For the parents worried about their son or daughter who can’t find a job, for the people who are seeing their living standards squeezed, for the people who think this country only works for a few at the top and not for them,” he told activists in Southampton, “Labour is back on your side…Labour is back throughout the country on your side.”

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There’s a lot going for Miliband’s claim. After its crushing defeat in the 2010 general election, the results seem to indicate that Labour is not only on the way up, but climbing at a rate beyond expectations. At the close of voting, the Conservatives – anticipating a bad night and hoping to minimise the pain – were predicting the Labour would gain up to 700 councillors; Labour, by contrast, was modestly hoping for a gain of only 400. Actually garnering more than 800 new council seats (to give a total of 2158 in this election), Labour’s result was apparently better than merely good. Indeed, an extrapolation from voting figures indicates that in a general election held on the same day, Labour would have taken 38% of the vote (up from 37% in the 2011 local elections) in comparison to 31% for the Conservatives (38% in 2011) and 16% for the Liberal Democrats (15% in 2011). To put this in perspective, in the 2010 general election, Labour polled only 35.2%, compared to the Conservative Party’s 32.4% and the Liberal Democrats’ 22.1%.

But Miliband should be wary of celebrating. What looks like a clear victory really isn’t as clear cut as he might like.

On the one hand, local elections are a notoriously bad indicator of voting behaviour in general elections. Affected by highly localised issues and susceptible to tremendous change in the long-term, local elections make it almost impossible to predict the results of future parliamentary elections. In the 1990 local elections, for example, Labour’s results showed a projected 44% of the vote, compared to the governing Conservative Party’s 33%. If these results were to be believed, Labour should have cruised to an easy victory in the 1992 general election. In the event, Conservative Prime Minister John Major captured 42.2% of the vote and secured a majority of 21; Labour had to wait five more years before getting a sniff of government.

On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that Labour has actually made any secure political progress. The areas in which its gains were most pronounced – the Midlands, South Wales, the industrial North East, Scotland – are all areas in which Labour was traditionally strong before the disaffection of 2005-10. It might reasonably be suggested that in gaining control of councils in these areas, Labour is really only regaining territory lost in previous years. In other words: not so impressive.

Even this, however, is deceptive. In voting for Labour candidates, were voters demonstrating a positive preference for Labour’s policy platform, or were they merely expressing their dissatisfaction with the coalition government? Given the fluidity which has characterised voting behaviour in the areas that went to the polls and the comparative weakness of Labour’s policy platform, it seems more plausible to suggest that the results represent a reaction against David Cameron’s government than anything else. As such, the future reliability of voting patterns is likely to be suspect in the extreme. What might have seemed a little less impressive now seems entirely unimpressive, and what looked like a victory probably isn’t a real victory at all. In fact, if Labour hadn’t managed to do roughly this well given current economic circumstances, it really would have been very surprising.

The Coalition?

If the local elections aren’t a victory for Labour, are they – paradoxically – a muted victory for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition? Somewhere in Downing Street, there are probably aides who are making this argument at this very moment. It’s not entirely absurd. Even if the government collectively lost ground across the country, the results weren’t as bad as they could have been, and the ambiguity of Labour’s gains perhaps gives some room for hope. Indeed, hope is even fostered by a few isolated successes: the victory of Boris Johnson, the incumbent Conservative candidate, in the London mayoral elections is a notable example.

But even if the coalition has managed to stave off absolute apocalypse, it still can’t claim even the most limited of victories with any conviction. It’s not that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats lost a large number of council seats – that much was predictable – but rather that the character and distribution of the losses are likely to have a lasting impact on the dynamics of the coalition.

In the first place, it is a grotesque understatement to say that the electorate has treated the Liberal Democrats as the coalition’s whipping boy. In continuing to support the Conservative-led coalition, the Liberal Democrats have effectively signed their own death warrant. On the one hand, they have lost their strategic advantages. No longer able to present themselves as the ‘alternative’ to both Labour and the Conservatives, they have sacrificed the support of many independent-minded voters. The noticeable growth of support for the Greens in the East and South-East, and the massive gains made by Labour and the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland is ample demonstration of this. It could perhaps be said that the Liberal Democrats’ failure to outpoll a six-foot penguin in Edinburgh Pentland Hills ward is emblematic of the scale of the loss. And on the other hand, they have weakened their own support base. In repeatedly going back on their principles to support government policy (note especially the tuition fees debacle), they have alienated many of their most committed supporters. The loss of Cambridge is emblematic. Long seen as the impregnable citadel of Liberal Democrat support, it now seems more like the party’s Masada.

Given the party’s junior role in the coalition and the divisions amongst its parliamentarians, there is little hope of the Liberal Democrats being able to recover their position from within government before the next General Election. It can’t shift its platform. The Liberal Democrats lack the numerical strength to force David Cameron to make policy concessions. Nor can it offer up a sacrifice to the electorate. The suggestion that Nick Clegg resign as leader while remaining as Deputy Prime Minister risks leaving the party look disorganised and divided. Given that withdrawing from the coalition is unthinkable, the only option is to soldier on manfully. But if the Liberal Democrats continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservatives, only oblivion awaits.

In the second place, while David Cameron can perhaps be forgiven a smile at his coalition partner’s plight, the Conservatives’ long-term strategy has been severely dented by the local elections.

After Tony Blair’s New Labour successfully dismantled traditional patterns of voting in areas like Putney, the challenge for Britain’s major political parties was to re-align voters unfettered by firm party loyalties, but motivated by broadly middle-class concerns. In 2010, the Conservatives’ general election victory was predicated on the capture of precisely this political centre-ground. Rebranding his party in much the same way as Tony Blair had done with Labour in 1997, David Cameron succeeded in reaching into ‘old’ Labour areas and capturing newly floating social constituencies. Looking to the future, his priority must be to create new patterns of voting; to transform one-off support in 2010 into long-term allegiances. Unfortunately, the local election results seem to suggest that this is simply not happening. However difficult it may be to extrapolate from local to general elections, it is nevertheless clear that the bonds formed in 2010 are simply not strong enough to stand up to significant socio-economic shocks such as rising unemployment, recession, and the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone. The future, in other words, looks bleak for Cameron’s Conservatives.

Minor Parties?

The position of ‘minor’ political parties initially appears more clear-cut. The Scottish National Party (SNP) in particular appears to have benefitted tremendously from the local elections. Gaining 57 new councillors, plus the control of two councils, the SNP – which romped to a landslide victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Elections – appears to have won a ringing endorsement of its track-record governing Scotland. Indeed, taking control of councils in Dundee and Angus for the first time in their history, the SNP could well argue that they have succeeded not merely in consolidating their 2011 successes, but have actually taken another step forwards to become the ‘natural’ first party of Scotland.

Unfortunately, even this is deceptive. Impressive though the SNP results may have been, they are tempered by the parallel successes of the Labour Party north of the border. The greatest successes of the election – the scalping of the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh being the most notable – were at least as much a product of Labour’s gains as the SNP’s progress, and the fact that the majority of Scottish councils (23) remain with no single party in overall control points not towards the dominance of the SNP, but towards the continuity of power-sharing in local government.

Similarly, even though there is a closer correlation between local and general election results in the case of ‘national’ parties like the SNP, it is far from clear that the SNP’s gains presage wider successes. On the one hand, there is nothing to suggest that votes for local councillors can be equated with the growth of support for the party’s flagship policy – a referendum on Scottish independence. On the other hand, the resurgence of the Labour Party in Scotland indicates that the SNP will have to fight harder to make further inroads into key parliamentary battlegrounds in the central Glasgow-Edinburgh belt.

Democracy?

If the local elections were ‘bad’ for most political parties, however, could it not be argued that they were good for democracy? Instead of being merely about the victory of one party or another, it might be said that these elections underscore the fluidity of electoral behaviour across Britain, and thus imply a greater measure of voter autonomy than ever before. Elections, it suggests, are about voters, not parties; and it’s clear that every vote counts.

Unfortunately, however, this election was as good for democracy as April was for Britain’s ice-cream manufacturers. It wasn’t. In fact, quite the opposite.

In the first place, the election barely counted as an example of popular engagement with a participatory democracy. Even by the pitiful standards of British local elections, the turnout was staggeringly low. Barely 32% of eligible voters turned out at the polls, the lowest figure since 2000. Given the character of Britain’s economic difficulties and the scale of unemployment, it is perhaps surprising – not to say disquieting – that voters are so politically disengaged. Although it is perhaps pushing the evidence a little further than it deserves, one could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s persistent economic difficulties have actually increased, rather than arrested, the incidence of perceived alienation from the political process.

In the second place, those voters who did turn out at the polls actually turned their backs on the extension of democracy. In parallel to local council elections, ten cities held referenda on whether to elect their mayors directly. Of these ten, nine – Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester, Coventry, Sheffield, Bradford, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, and Wakefield – decisively rejected the proposal, and the solitary city to embrace direct elections – Bristol – chose to do so on the basis of a turnout of just 24.1%. It seems evident that in straitened times, voters do not believe that directly-electing executive officials will improve the quality of services in local authorities. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the democratic principle.  

So, in the end, who really won the local elections? The answer is: no-one. It sounds paradoxical, but the reality is that not a single political party made unequivocally positive gains, and democracy itself was almost certainly damaged.

At best, this latest round of voting is a sign of things to come. But rather than presaging victory or defeat, it points merely to instability, uncertainty, and diminishing confidence in the political process.

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