Within the United Kingdom the elections for various local authorities take place on the first Thursday in May every year, although each year a different mix of seats comes up for election. As far as the 2008 elections were concerned there were 4,059 seats at stake in 159 local councils across England and Wales, representing seats that had last been contested in 2004, although there were also some new unitary authorities in Northumberland, County Durham, Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester up for grabs. Back in 2004, Labour didn't do that well, and so the Conservatives were downplaying expectations this time round. Whilst they expressed the hope they might win control of Bury, they weren't expecting great things, and the word from the Conservative Party HQ was that they might win around eighty seats and that anything more was a bonus. Similarly the word from the Labour Party was they might lose as many as two hundred seats, and that anything less should be seen as a sign of recovery. Which of course, is simply the way in which political parties try and manage expectations in order to claim that things turned out 'better than expected'.
The polls closed at 10.00 pm on the evening of the 1st May, and as the results trickled in overnight they appeared to show that it would be a bad night for Labour. At a quarter to one on the following day the news came in that the Conservative Party had gained Southampton City Council, a result that was described as "sensational" by one polling expert named Tony King, and by mid-day with 118 of the 159 councils having officially declared, Labour had already lost 214 seats. By the early evening of the 2nd May when the results from all 159 councils had been declared, it became known that the Labour Party had lost 331 seats and nine councils, and that the Conservative Party had won 256 seats and control of another twelve councils, and so the actual results far exceeded Labour's worst expectations, or indeed the Conservative Party's best hopes.
Amongst the Conservative gains were Redditch, Basingstoke and Deane, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Harlow, whilst their success in also gaining control of both North Tyneside and Bury, together with the election of five new councillors in Sunderland, were all described as "iconic gains", since they demonstrated that the Conservatives could indeed now win in the north of England. The news from Wales (where all twenty-two councils were up for grabs) was similarly bleak for Labour, as they lost control of Flintshire, Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen, whilst the Conservatives won control of the Vale of Glamorgan and made "huge gains" in Powys where they went from having no councillors at all to having nine. Indeed a glance at the post-election Local Government map of Wales would show that both Labour and the Conservatives now controlled two councils each, a position of equivalence which quite beggars the mind.
Of course it was not all one-way traffic. In some places such as Ipswich, Labour actually won seats from the Conservatives, whilst the Conservatives themselves lost control of both Coventry and Colchester and the single seat they previously held on Sheffield City Council. Which, if nothing else, should serve to remind us that sometimes local elections are actually decided on local issues. Nevertheless it turned out to be an 'Anyone But Labour' election, with everyone, including the Green Party and the British National Party making gains at Labour's expense.
The Green Party made progress in Norwich to become the second largest party on the council, giving rise to expectations that they might be able to unseat Charles Clarke at Norwich South in the next General Election. However elsewhere they lost seats and overall their share of the vote appeared to have flat lined, despite being five seats up across the country. It was a similar story for the British National Party which won ten seats overall without showing much overall progress. In Wales Plaid Cymru lost control of Gwynedd, and had the embarrassment of seeing the party president Dafydd Iwan lose his seat, but they made a net overall gain of thirty-three seats as a result of gains made elsewhere at the expense of Labour
For the Liberal Democrats, party leader Nick Clegg claimed the results showed that his party was "regaining momentum" as he pointed to successes at Sheffield, Burnley, Kingston-Upon-Hull, and St Albans, whilst his party had even retained control of Liverpool, thanks to a last minute defection. However the overall net gain of thirty-four seats across the whole of England and Wales looked rather anaemic compared to the thirty-three seats Plaid Cymru had managed to win in Wales alone. Indeed the Lib Dems had Wales to thank for twenty-one of their gains, which left them with a mere thirteen net seats gained in England, largely because they lost almost as many seats to the Conservatives as they won from Labour. Their overall share of the vote was also down compared to both 2004, and the previous local elections in 2007 which, coupled with poor results in both the elections for the London Mayor and Assembly where the party lost a third of their vote, meant that it was "broadly a disappointing night" for the Liberal Democrats, no matter what gloss Clegg might have tried to put on things.
Others would however have been gladdened by the news of the electoral success enjoyed by the Socialist People's Party of Furness who took four seats from Labour, and the fact that the eighty-nine year old James Caunce had retained his seat in the Haydock Ward of St Helens, and would therefore be able to continue serving as a councillor as he had done for the past fifty-seven years.
The media were united in interpreting these election results as being a complete disaster for the Labour Party, with headlines such as 'Gordon Brown's day of misery', 'Brown And Out', 'Brown mauled in local elections' and a number of variations on the themes of 'May Day Massacre' and 'Brown's Black Friday'. The Times noted how Gordon Brown had been "humiliated" as his slipped party into third place, and The Guardian drew attention to the fact that Labour had suffered its worst election defeat for some forty years. With the understatement of the year, Gordon Brown explained that it was "clear to me that this has been a disappointing night, indeed a bad night for Labour", whilst for the Conservative Party, David Cameron called it a "very big moment".
Of course, the main interest in the results of the Local Elections was in what is known as the national equivalent vote, where polling experts calculate what the results mean in terms of the party's share of the national vote as it might theoretically have applied had there been a General Election. The result this time around was Conservative 44%, Liberal Democrats 26%, and Labour 25%, compared to 2004 when the Conservatives won a 37% share of the vote, with 27% for the Liberal Democrats and 26% for Labour. There were of course those that pointed out that whilst Labour did badly in 2004, it still went on to win the General Election in 2005 with a 36% share of the vote. However, the crucial point about the 2008 result was not that Labour did so badly, but that the Conservatives did so well; not that Labour lost, but that the Conservatives won so handsomely.
To understand what all this meant perhaps we should turn to The Guardian, for so long regarded as the in-house journal of New Labour, where Polly Toynbee was as confused as ever but felt that Labour could claw back momentum, whilst Michael White felt that Labour had been "pretty comprehensively stuffed", but that that as far as Labour were concerned "Gordon is their destiny - for better or for worse", and Simon Jenkins described the result as as "a sea change" in political fortunes, and that "most significantly, David Cameron now looks like a realistic prospect for prime minister". Certainly Mr Jenkins's views where echoed elsehwere in the press, such as in The Independent, where Nigel Morris wrote that it was a "result that puts Cameron on course for Downing Street". Indeed, the media perception of David Cameron was transformed overnight. Whilst he might have previously been regarded as having succefully renewed the Conservative Party and delivered a reasonable amount of electoral success at the local elections in 2006 and 2007, the feeling was that he wasn't quite there yet. The fact that the Conservatives had enjoyed double-digit leads in the opinion polls, at least since the debacle of the election that never was, and the various other embarassments suffered by the government, hadn't really changed anything. However the impact of the Local Election results, together with another resounding Conservative success at the London Mayoral Elections held on the same day, appeared to convince everyone that Cameron can win, and that "today's Cameron is looking very much like tomorrow's prime minister".
When the Daily Mirror runs headlines such as 'Labour disaster: Gordon Brown fights to stop party falling apart' you know that things are indeed bad for the Labour Party. Indeed Derek Wyatt, the Labour member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in Kent, who was understandably concerned about such things as his majority was only seventy-nine, branded the disastrous election performance as a "John Major moment". Which is to say, that point in time at which everyone realises that 'all is lost'. To rub it all in, on the 9th May The Sun announced the results of the latest YouGov poll which showed the Labour Party on a mere 23% and the Conservatives on 49%, being the lowest rating ever enjoyed by the Labour Party since opinion polls began, whilst over in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose own Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) had also suffered from a poor showing at the municipal elections in March, was telling his party that things weren't so bad as "At least I'm not Gordon Brown".
Unfortunately, for Brown at least, the results were even worse than they looked at first glance. The Guardian commissioned an analysis carried out by Dr Nicholas Allen, of the Department of Government at University of Essex, which concluded that the Labour Party's support had collapsed even more dramatically in marginal seats than it had across the rest of the country, and so implied an even greater loss of seats at a General Election.
These were indeed the worst set of Local government elections for the Labour Party since 1968. However it is worth remembering that back in 1968 the Labour Party was also in government and deeply unpopular thanks to the devaluation debacle of the previous year. Nevertheless Harold Wilson managed to claw his way back from the abyss and indeed was expected to win the UK General Election of 1970, and it was something of a surprise at the time when Edward Heath actually delivered victory for the Conservatives. Ditto for Margaret Thatcher, whom everyone thought would be a one-term Prime Minister back in 1981, although it took the Falklands War and the emergence of the Social Democratic Party to help her to another landslide in 1983. Which is to say that it is possible for governments to pull themselves out of the pit of doom, although past experience suggests that Brown is no Harold Wilson, and it is difficult to think of anyone he could pick to have a war with in the foreseeable future, bearing in mind that the British Army is fully engaged in fighting the wars the government hasn't managed to win yet.
As to how and why the Labour government found itself in such a pickle, we should recall that when Brown took over from Tony Blair as the Leader of the Labour Party in June 2007, the state of the public finances meant that there were good reasons why Brown wanted an election in the autumn of 2007. (And indeed with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that Brown might well been keen to have gone to the polls before the credit crunch bit.) It was his perceived dithering over the question of that election that began the slide in his popularity, and the slide was soon amplified by a series of 'scandals' over Northern Rock, Datagate, Donorgate and Haingate, as well as the more recent 10p Tax Row. But perhaps more to the point, throughout the spring of 2008 food prices rose by 10% or more, the price of petrol rocketed, and people found themselves paying 15% to 20% more for their gas and electricity, all of which led to the disappearance of the 'feel-good factor' during the early months of 2008 as the British public became increasingly pessimistic about the immediate financial outlook. To make matters worse, house prices began to fall, as the United Kingdom faced its own Mortgage Meltdown. Whilst Gordon Brown might well say "I feel voters' hurt", and indicate that some of the more unpopular tax rises announced in the March 2008 might well be rescinded, with the government already running a deficit of some £40 to £50 billion there isn't much room for financial manoeuvre, and he is no more capable than the man in the street of reversing the trend of commodity markets.
According to Ian Gibson, the Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich North (whose own majority of 5,459 would certainly be vulnerable to the kind of swing seen on the 1st May), "Brown had six months to turn round the party's fortunes", and implied that unless things got better by the time of the Party Conference in the autumn, the party would begin looking elsewhere for a new leader. He wasn't alone, as a Populus poll for The Times published on the 7th May reported that 55% of Labour voters now wanted Gordon Brown to resign, whilst also the poll also showed the largest Conservative lead ever recorded in the five years of Populus polls. According to the bookmakers William Hill the odds were 5-1 that Brown will be gone before the end of the year, whilst it was even quoting odds on the next Leader of the Labour Party to succeed Brown with David Miliband at 2-1 and Ed Balls at 5-1 as the favourites.
Nevertheless the balance of opinion is that a formal leadership challenge is unlikely. (Although it has been said that there is an outside chance that Alan Johnson might have a crack at it.) It has to be remembered that when Gordon Brown was 'campaigning' for the leadership of the party in May 2007, he joked that it was "almost embarrassing to have so much support", after he was nominated for the post by 313 of his fellow Labour MPs. Which meant that, leaving aside the thirty or so remaining left-wingers clustered around John McDonnell, and a dozen or so Blairist diehards such as Charles Clarke who couldn't bring themselves to endorse the old arch-enemy, that the remaining 90% of the parliamentary party all hailed Brown as the new king as the party dispensed with the formality of an actual election. The point here being that given the almost unanimous acclimation of Brown as leader, if Labour were to subsequently dispense with his services it would damage the party's credibility almost beyond recognition. Indeed the YouGov poll of the 9th May showed that voters were even less impressed by the available alternatives such as Ed Balls, Harriet Harman and David Miliband, and that the least worst option would be to bring back Tony Blair, who would only lose the party another three points.
Indeed the more likely a Labour defeat in the forthcoming General Election appears, the less probable it is that any of the realistic contenders will want to take the risk of having their own political careers blighted by responsibility for the defeat by launching a leadership challenge prior to the election. (Which would apply irrespective of the success or failure of said challenge.) In fact, they are far more likely to devote their energies to the task of ensuring that they can at least ensure their own re-election to Parliament.
Of course, such worries maybe premature. Perhaps the housing market is set for a soft landing, and the economy will bound away in 2009. Perhaps David Cameron will be convicted of some heinous sexual offence and the Conservative Party will implode. Stranger things have happened in politics. Or perhaps The Times columnist Matthew Parris will be proved right in his own simple advice to the Parliamentary Labour Party; "Give up. With the leader you've got and led as you are, all is lost."
The above article is drawn from a variety of reports in the British media including BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and their Sunday equivalents, as well as The Sun and The Daily Mirror.