John Curtice: A sign of Labour's weakness more than the Tories' strength

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Indy Politics

The electoral crisis currently facing the Labour Party was made manifest when the local election ballot boxes were opened yesterday. But David Cameron discovered that he had rather less to be triumphant about than he had hoped. Rather, both of Britain's parties of government were served notice that the smaller parties could well have stolen their thunder when the European votes are counted tomorrow.

Labour's loss of power on all of the county councils that it was defending was embarrassing enough. After all, the last time Labour failed to win Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire was in 1977, an event that was followed two years later by general election defeat. At least that whitewash had been widely anticipated.

What had not been expected, however, was that the party would turn in a performance that looked even worse than the record low to which it sank in last year's local elections. When projected into the equivalent of a national share of the vote, Labour's performance was worth no more than 23 per cent, one point down on last year.

Last year's dire performance induced a period of intense speculation about Mr Brown's future. This year's results were published against the backdrop of Labour MPs already openly arguing on the airwaves about whether Mr Brown should stay or whether he should go. There thus seems little reason to believe that Thursday's results will have done anything to persuade those MPs who have been muttering and perhaps even plotting about Mr Brown's future to end their discontent.

Two of the finer details of the results will give Labour particular reason for concern. First, the party's vote fell rather more heavily than the nationwide average in wards where it was previously relatively strong, including where it was trying to defend the local seat against a Conservative challenge. Second, the party also seemed to suffer most when the BNP did well locally.

In many respects the Conservatives appear to have plenty of reason to be cheerful in the wake of Thursday's results. The party captured most of the councils that had been in its sights. But that reflected Labour's weakness more than it did the strength of the Conservative advance.

True, at 38 per cent, the party's projected national share of the vote was as much as seven points above the equivalent figure for 2005, the year when nearly all the seats being contested last Thursday were previously fought over. But that represented a six-point drop on its performance in last year's local elections.

Mr Cameron would have preferred not to have suffered such an apparent loss of momentum at this stage in the parliament. It suggests the Tories' poll lead still reflects disillusion with Labour as much as enthusiasm for the Conservative alternative. Certainly some potential Conservative votes seem to have been attracted away by Ukip.

Equally, Nick Clegg has less progress to celebrate than he might have liked. At 28 per cent of the projected national vote the Liberal Democrats was up on the 25 per cent it secured last year. Even so, it was still no better than its local performance in 2005. With the Tories well up on their 2005 vote, it meant the Liberal Democrats were bound to lose the councils it was defending against a Conservative challenge, Devon and Somerset.

These two losses were, though, compensated by the party's rather unexpected capture of Bristol. Here the party was in a position to profit from the sharp decline in Labour support. In fact the Liberal Democrat vote across the city as a whole actually fell a point as compared with 2005.

The main reason why none of the big three had reason for unalloyed joy was the smaller parties' performance. It was much the same as in 2004, when local elections were last held on the same day as a European poll.

According to the sample of detailed ward results collected by the BBC, on average Ukip won no less than 15 per cent of the vote in those wards where they stood, while the Greens won 12 per cent and the BNP 10 per cent. All three managed to win a county council seat for the first time. And for Ukip and the Greens, at least, the figures are better than in the local election five years ago.

But if non-Westminster parties did relatively well, as had been expected in the wake of the expenses scandal, there was little sign of the anticipated mass abstention from the ballot box. Turnout was 38 per cent, similar to the the last time this round of local elections were last held independently of a general election, in 1993.

If some were dissuaded from voting by the expenses scandal, others felt impelled. Whatever damage has been inflicted on the parties, perhaps the health of Britain's democracy has not been undermined by recent events to the degree many have feared.

Yesterday's results were, of course, the first act of a two-part drama. The curtain rises again on Sunday when the European election results are declared. Perhaps what was most striking of all about the BBC's local results projection was its similarity to the equivalent projection in 2004.

Both the Conservative rating of 38 per cent and the Liberal Democrat score of 28 per cent are exactly the same as in 2004. That suggests the Conservatives are unlikely to do significantly better than the very modest 27 per cent they won in the European poll five years ago. Equally, the Liberal Democrats could once again be struggling to stay ahead of Ukip.

However there is one difference between the local election outcome this year and that in 2004 – Labour's projected vote is down by three points. If Labour's vote has fallen in similar vein in the European ballot boxes, it could well be struggling to stay above the 20 per cent mark. Mr Brown's troubles may not be over yet.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University