In an era of anti-politics, all the main parties – as they enter the final week of the European and local election campaign – are trying to roll boulders uphill.  But Labour’s task is particularly challenging.  Before the votes are cast, it appears that their boulder is already on top of the hill, given the party’s national poll lead.  The challenge of May 22 is whether it will still be there as firm as before, or firmer, or whether it will have become dislodged?

As the final week’s campaigning gets under way, Labour looks out at a field of opportunities in areas where good fortune may not matter so much – and an array of challenges in areas where much more is at stake.

For Labour, next week is about steadiness.  The party’s national poll lead has been slipping gradually, and, on the eve of voting, Mr Ashcroft has thrown into the mix a credible new poll suggesting it has evaporated completely. 

First, the field of fortune.  For all the anti-politics mood, and the undoubted scope for UKIP to cash in on it in the European elections, Labour can hardly fail to advance.  In 2009, when the seats were last contested, Labour was punished at the European poll, receiving under 16% of the vote and securing only 13 MEPs.  The party’s national poll rating is now twenty percentage points higher.  Even allowing for some defection to UKIP, Labour will gain MEPs, probably between 7 and 10.  This advance may be shrouded however, especially if UKIP top the poll in votes cast.  As there is a good chance of that happening, Labour has tactically played down the European elections. No previous European election has been a reliable pointer to the subsequent general election.  Party strategists know that the European elections are often not exactly about Europe.  The party quietly expects a significant gain in seats, and equally quietly realises that they can probably secure limited political capital from doing so.

Secondly, the array of challenges.  These are in the local elections.  Here – unlike the European elections – Labour is starting from a relatively strong position, so the opportunities to advance are significantly fewer.  And yet this is where the effort has been going, and where it will be ramped up in this final week.  This is where the position of the boulder needs securing. Here, there are more reliable pointers to 2015.  When the dust blown up by UKIP’s probable European ‘win’ has settled, this is where the focus will shift.

And that’s why there is policy to be found here.  A few key components of the developing manifesto for 2015 are out being trialled here in the local contests.  The city strategy component of the wider growth plan was launched in the spring and is being pushed hard in the local elections in the large metropolitan area voting next week.  The ‘generation rent’ pitch was put at the centre of the local election campaign to help mobilise voters across the urban districts voting next week.  The policies are designed to appeal to core and swing voters in these communities and the messaging is being tested in this campaign.

The challenge is to hold ground gained, and to make strategically significant advances.  Labour enters the final week of the campaign already holding a total of 6842 council seats.  This represents a significant advance on the 2010 low point of 4800, but sits well short of the high tide total of 10,000 in 1998.  Labour already controls 118 councils.  The local elections offer fewer chances for gains than the European Parliamentary elections.

In the final week, the campaign will be concentrated in those areas where further gains are thought possible, and where it is important to demonstrate strength, and progress, ahead of the 2015 contest.

Labour will be aiming to stem the drift to UKIP from within its own ranks, by highlighting some of the party’s social and economic policies which are anathema to most Labour voters.  The challenge here though is asking anti-politics voters to switch back into politics for a moment.  The impact may therefore be limited.

But Labour will be targeting the Liberal Democrats as well.  In previous rounds of local elections, in 2011 and 2012, Labour made substantial gains for the Liberal Democrats in urban council areas.  It looks to do more next week.  Labour strategist look at polling evidence pointing to up to 30% of current Liberal Democrat identifiers as having only a weak attachment to the party.  Bringing them over to Labour is seen as a key to picking up marginal seats from the Conservatives in 2015.

Labour will in the final week concentrate its push in areas that matter to the 2015 strategy.  District councils that contain key marginal Parliamentary seats will see the bulk of the action – for instance Cambridge, Gloucester, Lincoln, Redditch, Stroud and Worcester.  Alongside that will be a final focus of unitary councils such as Milton Keynes and Slough, and Metropolitan councils such as Liverpool and Sheffield, with a particular view to eroding the Liberal Democrat position further.

In London, where all borough seats are up next week, Labour again only has limited scope to gain seats and councils (the party polled well in the capital’s local elections on the same day it was suffering its heavy Parliamentary defeat).  But a handful of gains are possible, to be drawn equally from the coalition partners.

For Labour, next week is about steadiness.  The party’s national poll lead has been slipping gradually, and, on the eve of voting, Mr Ashcroft has thrown into the mix a credible new poll suggesting it has evaporated completely.  Yet, in local government by-elections, Labour has been quietly content with its performance within key marginal Parliamentary seats. ‘ Steady as she goes’ requires there to be not too many pebbles dislodged around the base of that boulder.  But the geological surveying that matters most is in the municipalities closer to home, not to Parliaments across the water.


James Plaskitt