In much of the south, Labour is a fringe party (5 June 2009)
Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer, reports Lewis Baston
The Conservatives have done extremely well in terms of seats in the county council results. It was almost a foregone conclusion that they would hold on to what they had, and sweep Labour out of the remaining county councils in the Midlands, but they seem to have done rather better.
They were not just beneficiaries of a Labour collapse, but also made considerable progress against the Liberal Democrats, notably gaining control of Somerset. So far the Tories even look as if they are doing well in the new Cornwall unitary council, winning Redruth Central – a town where the party scraped barely 10% of the vote in the 2005 county elections. It seems possible that they will manage a clean sweep of all the county councils, a feat at the most optimistic end of their hopes.
For Labour the results are utterly miserable, with extremely few exceptions (the party strangely gained a couple of seats in Nelson, Lancashire, despite the general collapse, and nearly held firm in Hastings). Across a lot of southern England, Labour is running in fourth, fifth or even sixth place in the county elections behind candidates of more or less any other party that fancies its chances – Greens, Ukip, English Democrats …
In much of the south, Labour is in effect a fringe party. It has been practically eradicated as a force in politics in these areas and may well never recover. Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer. There have also been some spectacular collapses in northern England – in Burnley Rural ward, which Labour was defending, the party came fourth and lost the seat to the Lib Dems.
The county elections reveal an English electorate attracted by populist rightwing parties, a predictable expression of the widespread indiscriminate cynicism about mainstream politics. The BNP has polled at the upper end of expectations, getting 7% even in some areas (such as Chelmsford and the Clacton area) outside its traditional stamping grounds.
The far-right party has so far won seats in Lancashire and Leicestershire, albeit only on 27%-31% of the vote through fractured opposition. If David Cameron objects to electoral systems that let in extremists, is he now going to condemn first past the post in local elections?
Aside from the BNP, the rightwing mood is apparent in the high votes for Ukip where it has stood in local elections, small rightwing parties and perhaps the surprise package of the lot, the English Democrats, who won the demolition derby that was the Doncaster mayoral election.
They have also achieved some quite impressive shares of the vote in county elections – Essex, for instance – despite the lack of knowledge of the party among the media.
The total vote for these parties plus the Conservatives could make the 2009 European election the most rightwing expression of opinion the British have made collectively since 1931.