John Curtice: Chill wind from Hurricane Howard gives Labour a severe attack of mid-term blues

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Teflon Tony has finally lost his coating, but whether he is in danger of being swept from power by Hurricane Howard is still far from clear. These were the key messages from the local ballot boxes yesterday.

Teflon Tony has finally lost his coating, but whether he is in danger of being swept from power by Hurricane Howard is still far from clear. These were the key messages from the local ballot boxes yesterday.

Never before have Labour done so badly in local elections. The BBC estimated that its performance would be worth no more than 26 per cent of the vote if it were to be replicated across the country as a whole, four points down on its performance last year and three points lower than its previous worst-ever performance, recorded in 2000.

It trailed the Liberal Dem- ocrats for the first time in local elections and the Labour vote fell by no less than 7 points on the 2000 result in the London Assembly poll. Ken Livingstone was only re-elected thanks to his personal popularity.

True, local elections have long been poor hunting ground for Labour. Even during Mr Blair's long honeymoon with the electorate, after he won power in 1997, the party never succeeded in translating its double-digit opinion poll leads into votes in the local ballot box.

Voters who are willing to back the party for Westminster have displayed a persistent reluctance to trust the party with the running of their local town hall. If there were to be a general election tomorrow then Thursday's performance probably signals that Labour would win about a third of the vote, rather than just little more than the quarter of yesterday's tally.

But a third of the vote is far from being sufficient to guarantee a general election victory, and the results certainly confirm the message of recent opinion polls that Labour suffering a serious dose of the mid-term blues. To date there has seemingly been a tendency to discount the message from the polls; now many a Labour MP has seen it translated into reality in their own back yard. These results serve them with a clear warning that they would be unwise to persist with the assumption that they are bound to win a third term, come what may.

Moreover, disillusion with New Labour continues to be greatest in the party's traditional heartlands. On average its vote fell far more heavily in wards it was defending than it did elsewhere, Thus, Labour's vote typically fell by 11 points compared with 2002 in wards that it won two years ago, but by just three points elsewhere.

It was the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives who did most of the damage, typified by their successes in capturing control of Newcastle, although in London George Galloway's Respect appears to have captured the anti-Iraq war vote.

Mr Blair must hope that having taken the opportunity to express their discontent, his heartland voters will be willing to return to the fold in a general election next year. If they do not, then Labour might suddenly find that the electoral system is no longer as kind to them as was in 1997 or 2001.

But if Labour is unpopular, it appears the Conservatives have still to persuade many voters that they represent a desirable alternative. True, with 38 per cent of the projected national vote Michael Howard has recorded a clear advance on his party's local election performance over the previous two years - in stark contrast to what happened under Iain Duncan Smith's leadership last year.

Together with outpolling Labour in the London Assembly election, the result will probably be enough to insulate him against any criticism should the results of the European parliament ballot tomorrow prove more disappointing for the Tories.

Even so, the party has still not done any better than it did in the 2000 local elections even though the government is evidently far more unpopular than it was four years ago, while its vote in the London Assembly was down two points. And of course the Conservatives' performance in 2000 was followed just 12 months later by bitter defeat for William Hague. Indeed the party failed to make significant net gains of seats in those councils where the seats up for grabs this year were last contested four years ago.

Perhaps, however, the most telling indication of the modesty of the Conservatives' performance is to compare it with what Labour achieved when the then Conservative government did as badly in the local polls as Labour did on Thursday. Then Labour regularly secured 40 per cent or more of the vote. That target still remains an elusive one for the Conservatives.

An unpopular government and an unappealing opposition presents of course a potentially opportune climate for the Liberal Democrats. And with a projected share of 29 per cent their performance was at least as good as any previous local showing. The party often profited from Labour misfortune, as in Newcastle, but sometimes found itself losing ground when facing a challenge from the Conservatives, as typified by the party's loss of control in both Eastbourne and Cheltenham.

That latter pattern must be considered a warning that the party could yet face some tough battles in trying to retain its many parliamentary seats where the Conservatives are breathing down its neck. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats still have to demonstrate that they can translate local advances in traditional Labour territory into parliamentary seats in a general election.

But the Liberal Democrats were far from being the only party to profit from the electorate's apparent lack of enthusiasm for either the Conservatives or Labour. Both the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Greens made a notable advance. In winning an average share of the vote of 14 per cent in those seats in which it stood, UKIP doubled the tally its candidates achieved last year, while the party also made a breakthrough in London.

This would seem to confirm the message of the opinion polls that it will see significant gains in the European results. However, expectations generated by some polls that UKIP might do most damage to the Conservatives were not fulfilled in the local elections at least.

The Greens' advance was more modest but the party still passed the 10 per cent mark in the seats that it fought for the first time in its history. If it has done that well in the European elections as well then the party may well retain the two European seats that it won five years ago. But the party will be disappointed to have been overtaken by UKIP in London, a development that could threaten its European seat there.

For the British National Party the tide may have begun to recede. Although it still averaged 16 per cent of the vote in the wards in which it stood, this represented a drop of 9 points on its performance last year. The party even fell to fourth place in Burnley, hitherto the scene of its biggest success, although at the same time it made three surprise gains in Epping Forest and four in Bradford. Overall, it looks as though the party's hopes of securing a MEP may be dashed.

In recent years any loser at local elections has always had recourse to an easy excuse: turnout was so low that nothing of significance could be inferred from the results. That excuse disappeared at these elections. Turnout was restored to the kind of level that used to be the norm before the 1997 general election, averaging about 40 per cent in the local elections and 35 per cent in London.

Moreover, contrary to expectations before polling day, the increase was not simply occasioned by the use of all-postal ballots. While turnout rose on average by 13 points in areas where there was an all-postal ballot, it also rose by 6 points in conventional ballots.

One possibility is that having the chance to vote in two elections rather than one persuaded some voters that it was worth turning out. The other possibility is that the apathy of recent years has been reversed.

Perhaps the message of recent opinion polls that Labour was no longer miles ahead has begun to percolate through to voters, persuading them that turning out to vote was now more likely to make a difference. Or perhaps some voters returned to the polls because they wanted to express their disapproval of the Labour Government. Either way, if the electorate has begun to re-engage with the ballot box, the impetus towards all-postal ballots may recede.

The seven-point difference between the increase in turnout in areas with all-postal ballots and that elsewhere is rather less than expected. Indeed it may well prove to be the case that all-postal ballots have induced rather less than John Prescott's target of 1 million extra voters it the polls for the European elections.

Still, doubtless the all-postal ballots experiment will be subjected to an exhaustive evaluation after the extensive criticism it has faced. And if it has any sense Labour will conduct a similar inquest into its own performance.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University

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