A long, dark night for machine politics of the two big parties

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The Independent Online

After a long dark night for the machine politics of the two big parties, there are only two clear victors. One - of course - is Ken Livingstone who with no party at all, and no more than a skeletal organisation, today savours the triumph of becoming London's first directly elected Mayor. That was expected, though the scale of the humiliation for Labour at the hands of the capital's bloody-minded electorate was not.

A bigger surprise, however, has been the spectacular success of Charles Kennedy, a man who had seemed in almost total eclipse after winning the battle to succeed Paddy Ashdown as leader of the Liberal Democrats last year. Yet he can now boast that he has secured a record vote share in the local elections of about 28 per cent, holds the balance of power in the Greater London Assembly and, sweetest of all, has trounced William Hague by turning an 8,000 Tory majority into one of 3,000 for Sandra Gidley, the new Liberal Democrat MP for Romsey.

For Mr Hague, the results are, to say the least, worryingly mixed. Nothing should take away from the real success in gaining 590 seats in local councils. The gains were at or above the highest level of expectations. As importantly, they will breathe new life into the party cadres up and down England.

But they are not the vindication of Mr Hague's aggressive emphasis on asylum and immigration that the Tory right will claim them to be. First, Steven Norris, who can be deeply satisfied with coming second in the mayoral contest, achieved his success by deliberately fighting a much more liberal and less xenophobic campaign. Second, the bitter defeat in Romsey was at the hands of a party and leader who, more than any others, had attacked the Tory leader on those very issues. Mr Hague is alive but no nearer a general election victory than before.

The results were just as bad for Labour. Beside losing many more council seats than it had expected, its failure to get more seats than the Tories in the Greater London Assembly testifies to the beginnings of a discontent that saw some Labour voters defect to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. The Prime Minister was quick to say that the Government would learn lessons from the results - which will surely include a hefty increase in payments to pensioners. Oldham, lost to the Liberal Democrats campaigning on that single issue, was only one of many areas where pensioner discontent seems to have been a decisive factor. There was also a pronounced Longbridge effect in the West Midlands.

The most far-reaching impact of the night, therefore, will almost certainly be on relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Romsey showed that anti-Tory tactical voting is alive and well. Indeed, for Mr Hague, who might have expected it to decline now that his party is in opposition, this is nearly the most alarming aspect of yesterday's results. But it also underlines the extent to which Labour could now do with the Liberal Democrats' help. To squeeze the Liberal Democrat vote in Labour-Tory battlegrounds as Labour was squeezed in Romsey may require even more co-operation between the parties. Mr Kennedy has shown that he is a force in British politics, and may now be able to negotiate some joint election themes with Labour to maximise the anti-Tory vote.

At the very least, Mr Blair will surely be determined to avoid at this autumn's Labour conference ditching the promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform in the next parliament. Without it, Mr Kennedy has no reason to furnish his help in defeating the Conservatives.

Immediately, however, the man of the moment is Mr Livingstone. Sensibly, Mr Blair acknowledged that London had made its choice and it would be the job of the Government to help make it work. He could hardly do anything else; for there is, or should be, an inviolable principle of democratic politics that the customer is always right. Whether the customer will feel the same way about him at the end of his four-year term is now up to Ken.