Friday, 2 May 2008

Local elections smiles & struggles

Phil Hornby blogs from Parliament

There are lots of bleary-eyed politicians touring the broadcasting studios here at Westminster today. But the Tories are smiling. They had a terrific night in the south, and across the country. Labour faces are glum.

Because of the relatively small number of council seats up for election yesterday, there were never going to be lots of spectacular results. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have taken control of Southampton and Maidstone for the first time in a generation, and they made steady gains in almost every other council in our region. The exception which proves the rule – and there always is one – was Gosport. The Tories were hopeful of taking control there, but the Lib Dems did well and the Tories missed out.

So what does it mean? It’s always dangerous to read too much into local election results. The Conservatives had some dreadful results in the 80s, but Mrs Thatcher kept coming back and winning general elections. The same is true of Tony Blair.

This time feels different though. Throughout the Blair years, despite some terrible local election results, Labour were ahead in the opinion polls. And, crucially, the economy felt in good shape.

This time, Labour’s nightmare results come against a backdrop of economic gloom, and a consistent huge Tory lead in the polls.

And the Conservatives look electable. For the first time since Labour came to power, the Tories look like a credible alternative government.

The next general election will be won and lost in the Labour/Tory marginals, and there are more in our region than anywhere else. Cabinet Minister John Denham understands that Labour have to get their act together to stop the south becoming True Blue Tory heartland once again. He and Tony Blair saw the need to make Labour electable in the south after the 1992 general election, and came up with a battleplan to combat what they called ‘Southern Discomfort’.

Well, he has to do that again. So next week, he’ll be delivering a lecture in London – called Southern Comfort - to stress the importance of the south if Labour are to stand a chance of winning next time round. But if last night’s results are anything to go by, they face an uphill struggle.

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