Sum up Thursday’s elections in one line. Not easy, is it?
“A triumph for UKIP”, no wait, “a disaster for the Lib Dems”, hang on, “a big worry for Labour.”
In fact, both the local and European elections contained enough to worry every party leader, however practised the plastic smiles they wear for the cameras.
Labour was supposed to leap from huge gains to a clear victory in next year’s General Election. In fact, they picked up a handful of councils, but if it wasn’t for a strong performance in London they would have been tied with the Conservatives for second place in the European election.
Ed Miliband appears to have hugely underestimated the extent to which UKIP would appeal to voters in Labour heartlands like Wales and the north-east of England.
Labour hoped to be striding confidently back to power. Instead, they look hesitant, unable to even convince each other they can win.
Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Minister for London, told me a few days ago the hope is “progress” in 2015, pointing out it’s forty years since a party regained power at the first opportunity. He may not have meant to sound quite so pessimistic, but it’s a clue to how those at the top of Labour are feeling.
Despite this, criticism of Ed Miliband won’t evolve into a full-on attempt to unseat him. It’s simply too late. The time for Labour to change leader passed more than a year ago. To do so now, asking voters to disregard everything they’ve said in opposition so far, would invite catastrophic failure.
To build on the shaky foundations of last Thursday, Labour need to clearly set out how Britain would look under a Miliband government. And they need to tackle the issue that seems to most threaten them -- that many voters simply can’t picture Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.
We don’t agree with Nick (anymore)
Nick Clegg, puffy-eyed and forlorn on TV, has every reason to fear the next twelve months. Four years into the coalition, many of his supporters have abandoned him, and while the few that remain probably won’t knife him in the back, they also wouldn’t mind if he chose to walk away.
But he almost certainly won’t, partly because he there’s no clear alternative strategy, whatever Lord Oakeshott thinks. It’s now clear a significant proportion of Liberal Democrat voters from 2010 will not return next year -- unwilling to credit Clegg for standing up to UKIP, many simply want to punish him.
And it’s hard to see how you can counter that with any kind of positive campaign. The Lib Dems may have to hope for best, while repeatedly saying how much worse it would have been if “those beastly Tories” had governed alone.
Which, of course, is exactly what David Cameron wants to do. These elections weren’t the disaster some feared, but Tory support seems to be holding up because voters aren’t warming to Labour, not out of any loyalty to the current government.
Cameron’s set himself a tough task -- not just matching his performance in 2010, but exceeding it, delivering an outright majority for the Conservatives. Thursday’s votes suggest that’s a tall order, but given a fair wind and more Labour unrest it’s not an impossible dream.
Except, of course, for Nigel Farage.
UKIPPERED? Not really
The UKIP leader says “the fox is in the Westminster henhouse”. As usual with Nigel, it’s a nice soundbite, but far, far from reality.
UKIP’s council gains came on the day of a European election. When these seats come around again in 2018, and people are talking about bin collections in Bradford rather than Brussels, UKIP risk looking irrelevant.
Ask the Greens, who got 15-percent of the vote at the 1989 Euro election, talked up a breakthrough, and went nowhere. Indeed, they out-performed the Lib Dems this time, but hardly anyone has noticed.
Thursday’s results, good as they may have been for UKIP, give Farage no reason to genuinely expect to be in the Commons this time next year.
For that to happen, UKIP would have to focus relentlessly on the one or two places (in Essex or Kent, perhaps), where they might -- just might -- manage to win an election outright if they throw every last resource at the campaign there. That would be at the cost of abandoning many of the areas that contributed to UKIP’s strong showing last week, and that would be a very high risk strategy.
And yes, UKIP supporters, I know they’ve just won more than 150 first-past-the-post elections. But most only needed them to gather a few hundred votes. To get into the Commons, they’ll need to win round at least 20-thousand in one constituency. To do that, they’ll need a policy platform that extends beyond “we don’t like Europe”, and they’ll need to make progress in London, which remains stubbornly resistant to the Farage charm.
Countering UKIP will be David Cameron’s biggest headache for the next year. The voters he needs if he’s to have any chance of winning are split between the anti-European, UKIP, wing and a much more socially liberal group, the people who voted for Tony Blair -- unlikely to warm to an increasingly strident anti-European message.
In all the talk about UKIP and the Lib Dems, we risk forgetting the real battle at the general election will be between Labour and the Conservatives. One of those parties will end up running the country this time next year -- either alone or with the support of a whatever rump of Lib Dem MPs remains.
UKIP remains a bit-part player, albeit a noisy and disruptive one. Their legacy could yet be that, having forced Cameron to offer an EU referendum, they end up helping to defeat him, removing any prospect of a British exit from Europe.