John Curtice: Why this was not a disaster for Labour

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Mr Blair had one decisive card up his sleeve. In the previous local elections, in 2004, his party did so badly it secured no more than the equivalent of 26 per cent of the vote in a general election. It was Labour's worst performance in living memory. Yet 12 months later Mr Blair won a historic third term. So all he needed to do on Thursday was to do no worse than that very low baseline of two years ago, and the result would not be adjudged a disaster.

And the equivalent of 26 per cent of a general election vote is precisely what Labour managed to achieve. Thus, while the results confirmed that Labour is indeed in considerable electoral trouble, they did not suggest that its position - and thus Mr Blair's - was necessarily terminal.

Moreover the argument that Mr Blair's New Labour style of government is eroding the party's support among its traditional supporters in particular lost some of its force. On average, Labour's support increased on its 2004 vote in more working-class wards while falling in more middle-class ones. Moreover, some of the damage done to Labour's support among Muslim voters by the Iraq war appears to have been repaired too.

Nevertheless, there was still one major fly in the ointment for Mr Blair. One of his key assets as Labour leader has been the apparently perpetual unpopularity of the Tories. This meant, for example, he was able to win last year's general election despite winning just 36 per cent of the vote himself. Thursday's results suggest Mr Blair's luck may be beginning to run out. The Conservatives breached the crucial barrier of 40 per cent of the projected general election vote, an increase of two points on its 2004 performance, for the first time since the party was ousted in 1997.

As a result, at 300, Labour's loss of seats was rather greater than would have occurred if the results had simply been an exact repeat of what happened in 2004 - and all too close to the 350 figure that some said would spark an attempt to unseat Mr Blair. As well as losing those London boroughs it had widely been expected to lose, such as Hammersmith, Bexley, Croydon and Hounslow, the party also suffered more serious losses in the capital in Camden, Lewisham and Ealing as well as serious defeats elsewhere including Bury, Redditch, Warrington and Plymouth.

However, there is little evidence that Mr Cameron's efforts to rebrand his party have enabled the Conservatives to fulfill their leader's stated aim of advancing in traditionally non-Tory territory. The party still lacks any representation in the cities of Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle. Meanwhile, its advance on 2004 was strongest in the traditional Tory territory of the south of England and in more middle-class wards. Rather than reaching parts of the electorate that previous Tory leaders could not reach, the Tory advance seems to have been founded on bringing out voters in what once at least were traditional heartlands.

Nevertheless, the new Tory leader did achieve one primary objective - to begin to pull away from the Liberal Democrats. Whereas the Tories' support increased by two points on 2004, the Liberal Democrat vote slipped back by two points. Moreover, the Conservative advance was typically at its strongest in places where they were primarily in contention with the Liberal Democrats.

As a result, the latter could do little more than hold its own so far as councils and councillors were concerned. Still, after the travails surrounding the resignation of Charles Kennedy at the beginning of the year, the party may be thankful it has not done any worse.

The three main parties were not the only ones to make the headlines. So also did the British National Party which gained about 25 seats, including no less than 11 in Barking and Dagenham, east London, where the local MP, Margaret Hodge, had suggested that as many as eight in ten white voters were thinking of voting for the right-wing party.

However, the BNP's performance should not be exaggerated. In those wards which the party contested on Thursday that it had fought in 2004, its share of the vote was no higher than it had been two years' previously. The party gained seats mainly because its vote was well up on its vote in 2002, the year most of the seats fought on Thursday had last been contested. Thursday's results were more a reminder of the existing strength of the BNP rather than evidence of a further advance.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University