Professor John Curtice: Labour's making progress, but it's still some way from No 10

 

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The Tories' Teflon coating has finally begun to wear thin. The Liberal Democrats remain in severe electoral trouble. Meanwhile, although Labour has made progress, it has yet to demonstrate it is firmly on a course that leads to a return to government. These were the key messages to emerge from Thursday's council results.

Defending their best set of local results in the last parliament, the Conservatives were bound to suffer some losses. However, until a few weeks ago they had hoped to equal their performance in last year's local elections – one on a par with the support they won in the 2010 general election. But those hopes had evaporated before Thursday. Following a sequence of political accidents, recent polls have been suggesting that the party has finally hit electoral rough water. A four-point drop in the Tory vote in the English council elections as compared with last year represented an unwelcome confirmation of the message of those polls. Still, for now, the Tories can reasonably regard their electoral difficulties as worrying rather than serious. By the standards of Labour's local election performances in the last parliament or of the party's own achievements in the dying days of John Major's Government, the Conservatives' projected national share of 31 per cent still looks relatively healthy.

The same cannot be said of their Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. After a disastrous performance last year, they were keen to demonstrate they had taken at least the first few tentative steps on the road to recovery by registering some improvement. In practice, at 16 per cent, the party's support was as low as last year.

It was voters in wards where the Liberal Democrats were principally in competition with Labour who punished the party most severely. Compared with 2008, when the seats up for grabs on Thursday were last fought, the party's average vote was down by 18 points in those wards where it was in contention locally with Labour. Many voters in traditionally Labour areas remain unforgiving of the party's Coalition role.

Labour's projected share of 38 per cent was up two points on last year. The party hit almost every one of its targets in terms of councils gained and seats won. Muttering about Mr Miliband's leadership will die down for a while.

Yet Labour's performance was not that achieved by previous oppositions that subsequently won the next general election. Between 1994 and 1996 Labour had leads over the Conservatives of between 15 and 21 points, while David Cameron himself was between 15 and 18 points ahead in 2008 and 2009. Progress is not the same as arrival.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

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