The post-match analysis

by Stephen Tall on May 4, 2007

At the end of a long night, what are the scores on the doors?

Labour: an object lesson in how to manage expectations. So pitifully low has Labour sunk in popularity that the BBC’s projection the party will score 27% is hailed as a relative triumph. There was a sort of doomed inevitability to the excuse-mantra parroted by Labour’s talking heads yesterday: “after 10 years of a government”, “at this stage in a third term Parliament”, “mid-term blues” etc.

What this does show, though, is the resilience of Labour’s core vote in its urban heartlands – even in a bad year, these are not easy pickings either for the Tories or Lib Dems.

Tories: will be happiest of the three main parties, and yet… there will be nagging doubts in their minds that this result isn’t all it could have been. If they score 41%, as the BBC is projecting, it’s satisfactory – but they needed to hit a minimum of 42 or 43% to have real confidence.

There were some stunning victories (eg, Bournemouth and Torbay, which accounted for 37 Lib Dem losses!); but there were also setbacks (eg, Eastbourne and Bury); and still no real progress in cities like Liverpool or Manchester, or in Scotland and Wales. The jury’s still out.

Lib Dems: “a curate’s egg”, “a mixed bag” – which should come as no real surprise, except of course that, as the third party, we often talk up our chances in order to make them come true. Back in 2003, the Lib Dems scored 27% and the IDS-led Tories 35% – a national swing to the Tories was inevitable.

What’s important to look at is where those losses occurred: it’s a shame for the individuals concerned, but the Lib Dems losing three seats in Tunbridge Wells doesn’t matter half as much as our gaining seats from the Tories in key marginals like Eastleigh, Eastbourne and Southport. Indeed, our losses appear to be very heavily concentrated in a handful of areas, suggesting local issues were at play. That’s not to ingore them; but, equally, our opponents would be wrong to extrapolate great national significance.

What will have hit us is Labour’s failure to collapse completely to compensate for the gains the Tories have made in a handful of areas. And, if last year is any guide, a leaching of some of the ‘protest vote’ we sometimes attract to the Greens and other fringe parties.

Pundits: political journalists seem to have a huge problem with local elections. They want a neat one-liner to encapsulate how everyone has done: well, sorry guys, but these things are more complex and nuanced than that. As ever, each of the parties can take away from these results what they wish: the ups and downs will be filtered through rose-tinted spectacles, or through a glass darkly, according to taste.

The University of Plymouth’s Local Government Centre’s projections once again proved wholly inaccurate. Their estimate of the vote share (Labour 24%, Conservatives 38%, Lib Dems 29%) looks well off-beam; just as they were last year. My projection, however, is looking good; just as it did last year. Can I have a job, please, Newsnight?