Labour needs to gain 1,000 seats in next month's council elections in England to show it is back in business under Ed Miliband, experts said yesterday.
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Senior Labour figures have played down the party's prospects ahead of Mr Miliband's first nationwide electoral test since becoming leader last September. They have claimed the party would do well to gain 600 seats.
But John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said Labour needs to emerge with 1,000 more seats just to go back to where it stood in 1999, when the same councils which hold elections on 5 May went to the polls. The last time these seats were contested in 2007, Labour's fortunes were at a low ebb as Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister drew to a close. Labour won only a 26 per cent national equivalent share of the vote, with the Tories on 40 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 24 per cent.
Colin Rallings, professor of politics at Plymouth University, said: "If Labour does not make 1,000 gains, it is a failure."
The Independent's latest monthly "poll of polls" suggests that Mr Miliband is on track. Labour is on 40 per cent (down one point on February's score), the Conservatives on 36 per cent (up one point) and the Liberal Democrats on 13 per cent (unchanged). These figures would give Labour an overall majority of 44 if repeated at a general election fought under the current first-past-the-post system.
However, there is no guarantee that Labour will clear the psychologically important 40 per cent hurdle next month because many people vote differently in local and general elections.
Analysis of council by-elections by Professor Rallings and Professor Michael Thrasher at Plymouth suggests that Labour will win 38 per cent of the town hall votes and the Tories between 34 and 38 per cent. They say the "$64,000 question" will be the performance of the Liberal Democrats, who have long scooped up protest votes in council elections but will find it harder now that they are in government.
Elections take place in 22 of the 25 Liberal Democrat-run authorities, and the party is bound to lose ground to Labour in the north, where it has often positioned itself as to the left of Labour.
The Plymouth study suggests that Nick Clegg's party will do better overall than its current opinion poll rating, winning between 16 and 22 per cent of the votes. The wide margin reflects the difficulty of predicting the results in areas, mainly in the south, where the Liberal Democrats and the Tories go head-to-head. It could make the difference between a respectable defeat for Mr Clegg – losing between 200 and 300 seats – and a disastrous one of losses between 700 and 800.
A meltdown could put huge internal pressure on Mr Clegg. His party has often won parliamentary seats by building a base on local authorities. Losing hundreds of councillors would put that process into reverse and could spark calls by grassroots activists for the party to pull out of the Coalition.
The "poll of polls" suggests that Mr Clegg is a drag on his own party's performance, as his personal ratings remain poor. Professor Curtice, who compiled the figures, said: "There seems little doubt that Mr Clegg is wise to adopt in recent weeks what appears to be a rather more assertive role within the Coalition. He badly needs to reverse the negative view of both him and his party."
However, Mr Miliband is still struggling to make a favourable impact on voters. Professor Curtice said: "Labour might well benefit from a protest vote on 5 May but, like similar performances by the party in mid-term elections in the 1980s, this may mask doubts about Labour's own abilities."