A little less Southern Discomfort
Ken Livingstone’s defeat in
Southern Front’s pre-election review highlighted ten local authorities where Labour needed to either win or make significant gains. In all Labour retook eight of those ten, and although they missed out in Cambridge (somewhat of a long shot chance of a gain in any case) they made sufficient gains in the city to deny the Liberal Democrats outright control of one of their flagship councils.
In 2011, Ed Miliband’s only option to attend an election victory rally in the south was Gravesham; last Friday his itinery planners had eight options to consider. In the end he travelled to
Southampton, where Labour scored its most spectacular result – 11 gains sweeping the party into power there for the first time since 2000. But right across the political south – from Plymouth and Exeter through Southampton, Reading, Harlow and Thurrock, and then out to Great Yarmouth and Norwich, Labour took back control of councils that are home to some of the crucial marginal parliamentary constituencies that will determine whether Labour return to Government in 2015.
Labour emerged from the second set of elections to take place since the general election in a much stronger position than it found itself after its first post-2010 contest. The 800+ new Labour councillors provide the party with an invigorated and strengthened activist base, supporting at local level the party’s national campaign against the coalition. The corollary of course is that there are also now 800+ fewer Coalition councillors working against us in constituencies up and down the country.
But the scale of Labour’s victory – impressive though these gains are – isn’t the real story. What is so important about last week’s election results is not just that our gains were made at the expense of BOTH our opponents, but that the overwhelming majority of those gains came directly from the Conservatives.
Analysis of the results in the eight councils we won control of in the south, which are home to eight marginal parliamentary seats, shows that we gained those victories by winning 35 council seats from the Conservatives and 13 from the Liberal Democrats. In Southampton the party made ten gains at the hands of the Conservatives; in
and Great Yarmouth they took 6 and 4 seats respectively. In Plymouth Exeter, Southampton, , Harlow and Norwich Labour took seats from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Reading
Looking beyond the outcome in the councils that play host to key marginal parliamentary seats, Labour can also take heart from some good results elsewhere in the south. Gains in Rushmoor, Basingstoke & Deane and
North Herts – none of which contain parliamentary seats Labour has held recently - were all signs of a healthy and growing party. Newly elected Labour councillors in Adur and Maidstone have reduced by two the number of councils that do not have a Labour councillor sitting on them. Labour is beginning to win again in some of the places that stopped voting for us in the years of Government that followed 1997.
If 2012 displayed a marked improvement in Labour’s electoral performance, the Conservatives enjoyed the exact opposite. Having fared well twelve months ago, principally at the expenses of haemorrhaging Liberal Democrat support in the south west and an underperforming Labour party, this year the Conservatives took a hammering. Not only did they come off second best in most of the key contests against Labour, they also found themselves struggling to beat their coalition partners in contests ion parts of the country where Labour continues to be weak. The Conservatives failed to make the headway they sought in Eastleigh (home council of former Liberal Democrat cabinet minister Chris Huhne MP) and in
they lost seats to their junior partner. Portsmouth
The scale of the party’s victory in
Southampton deserved the recognition of a congratulatory visit by the Leader of the Party. But it was his other destination in the first 24 hours after the elections – that demonstrated his appreciation of the limitations of the progress made thus far. Worcester–
, although we made 3 gains from the Conservatives which cost them control of the council, we didn’t make sufficient gains to take outright control or even to become the largest party. Worcester of course isn’t in the south; but it mirrors other southern seats that Labour has fallen back in over the past decade. He could just as easily have visited Watford, St Albans or Worcester . Portsmouth
Ed Miliband’s post election reaction struck the right balance by congratulating the party but warning against triumphalism or the assumption that a good set of results in 2012 will automatically be replicated the next time country goes to the polls. As he said after the scale of Labour’s victory last week became clear: "I know we have more work to do to show we can change our country so that it works for you, for your sons and daughters who are looking for a job, for families feeling a squeeze in living standards, for everybody rather than just a few at the top”.
That’s the right message. Last week proved to be a great night for Labour in the South, but Labour’s southern discomfort although alleviated, isn’t over just yet.