Volatile voters get a glimpse of the post-Blair landscape (6 May 2006)
It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of local elections from Plymouth to Bury, as well as in London.
Labour’s losses are a little less than I had predicted, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-a-vis the Lib Dems in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.
While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004.
Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002. The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006.
The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors.
Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again – as it did in 2004 – refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25% and its politics are a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate. The appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing.
The Lib Dems have carved a niche in politics as the party of local government, but these results put this into question. They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power, or had recently held power, they tended to do badly.
The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Tories gaining in suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its traditional areas. It is perhaps not surprising that a civilised west London liberal Tory like David Cameron struck a chord in metropolitan suburbia, but did little for his party in earthier parts of England. Perhaps the 2009 election will resemble the patterns of 1992 or 1974 more than it does the rather classless electoral landscape of 2001.
But despite the Conservatives’ promising results last night, there is no sign that the electorate has any nostalgia for two-party politics, and even three-party politics now seems distinctly passé. The electorate seems volatile, grumpy and unconvinced, but it has given Cameron more cause for encouragement than it ever did for his three luckless predecessors.