They thumped Blair, if they could be bothered

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Probably 12 months from the next general election, it was inevitable we would view the outcome of the 4 May local elections with particular interest. Electors were involved in their millions through the major English conurbations, as well as better-heeled suburbs.

What happened? Well, Labour were thumped, the Conservatives ultimately performed below the standard required to win the next general and the Liberal Democrats proved, yet again, that hope springs eternal.

Labour were always going to lose seats this May simply because the majority of seats contested this time were last fought in 1996, the last great massacre of Conservative councillors under their own government, which cost them around half the seats they were defending.

So, Labour were, in turn, defending a very rich harvest of seats, with the reasonable expectation that they would lose many of them now that they were in government.

Before polling day I was advising colleagues that net Conservative gains of 400 seats or more would constitute a serious challenge to Labour; and so it appeared on polling day as the Conservatives cut a great swathe through large areas of the North and the Midlands.

The BBC's annual collection of data from key wards through the country gave a projected national vote share of Conservatives 37 per cent, Labour 29 per cent and 28 per cent for the Lib Dems.

Impressive as this lead appears, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has made the important observation that such projected shares were broadly in line with those Labour registered in the mid- 1980s, with (as history testifies) no appreciable effect upon the parliamentary majority of the Conservative party.

To investigate reasons why people voted the way they did, the BBC commissioned questions on a national omnibus survey. We found that William Hague was perceived to be a weak leader among 62 per cent of those who claimed they would not vote Conservative next time.

Similarly, 67 per cent of non-Conservative voters say the fact that the party is too divided is a reason for not voting Conservative at the next general election. More significantly, the survey showed that even among those who say they would vote Conservative at the next general election, only 19 per cent said their opinion of Mr Hague had improved, and 14 per cent said it had gone down.

The same respondents (57 per cent) thought taxation had gone up since the last election, compared to 5 per cent who thought it had fallen.

When it came to the Liberal Democrats, there were high levels of don't knows about their leader, Charles Kennedy which somewhat distort the overall responses.

But we were able to discover that 42 per cent of those who said they would not vote Lib Dem cited the party's support for the euro as their reason.

And following all the negative publicity about the Mayoral race in London, it was interesting to discover as many as 46 per cent of respondents outside London said as a result of what they had heard about the Mayor of London they would support having a directly elected mayor for their town.

In the event, Labour lost upwards of 600 seats on 4 May and this suggests they face a continuing problem with their supporters. The overall turnout of 30 per cent does not presage the downfall of thrones and empires but Labour would be foolish to ignore the rising tide of resentment among its supporters.

After the astonishing victory of May 1997, it was perhaps understandable some people within the Prime Minister's office thought the Labour Party had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Tony Blair plc.

The author is head of political research at the BBC