Friday, 23 May 2014

The era of four party politics..

At 8:30, Labour has 618 (up 101) council seats to the Conservatives' 535 (down 99), the Liberal Democrats have 175 (down 93) while Ukip have 87 (up 86). Of the councils so far declared, 27 are in Labour hands, 17 in Tory control, and two are run by the Liberals. A further sixteen have no overall control. Labour have made a net gain of 2 councils while the Tories have lost eight; the Liberals have meanwhile lost 2. Live results are available here.
Douglas Alexander has just described Ukip voters as those "left behind by the economy but locked out of politics." Their rise is the result of "trends that have built up over decades." "We've lived with four-party politics for decades in Scotland." Nonetheless, he still believes that the rise of Ukip favours Labour in the marginals: "I believe this morning as I did yesterday morning that Labour can win the general election.
Michael Gove echoed Mr Alexander's claims: "The question at the next election will be which party has genuine answers to their concern." He ruled out any pact with Ukip. "Politics doesn't work like that...and it shouldn't." "We must not for a second dismiss the degree of concern that they have. What we must do is ensure that our politics deliver."
The quote that keeps playing is Nigel Farage's triumphant "We are not going anywhere, I'm afraid." 

Good morning. A number of significant themes have emerged overnight, and there's a day of counting to come which will shift things: Ukip is confirmed as a national party (with a caveat that the nation, for the moment, is England); Ed Miliband and Labour are in deep trouble; London is another country; the Lib Dems have taken a pounding, are clinging on, but fingers are slipping; the Tories want us to focus on the troubles of others.

The early headlines, before any counts, were thematic too: "Knives out for Miliband as Labour jitters grow" was the splash in the Times, "Broken Clegg/Lib Dems battered" in the Sun, for example. Ken Clarke in the Telegraph anticipated the euro results by predicting that Brexit - wait for it - would be bad for Britain. The Guardian spoke of Nigel Farage's "one man juggernaut".

But where will we be by close today? Assuming the current trends, my hunch is that the biggest talking point will - or should - be the underlying weakness of Labour's position. It will make noise about its successes here and there, notably in London. But the pattern emerging is of the main opposition party with no tiger in its tank, struggling to advance, and showing no signs that it is motoring to victory next year. John Curtice, a voice of reason on matters psephological, said earlier: "When it comes to local elections, we have quite high expectations of what oppositions should achieve because we basically say, if a party looks as though it is potentially regarded as an alternative government, it should be doing very well in local elections, even better than you would expect to do in a general election in 12 months' time. The truth is, by that test at least, Labour have not done well enough."

That's why we have "senior figures" telling the Times that Mr Miliband looks and is weird. Graham Stringer, who has a habit of speaking plain truths about the failings of Labour leaders, has piled in. I predict that in the days and weeks to come Labour turmoil will replace Ukip surge as the running story at Westminster, with terrible consequences for Mr Miliband. With no sign of any trouble for Dave worth pursuing, the pack will shift its attention to Labour, which faces a torrid summer.

A few more preliminary observations. First, share numbers are unreliable, but it's worth triangulating local performance with Westminster seats: is Labour winning council seats in constituencies it needs to win next year? Are Lib Dems holding seats in their heartlands? Is Ukip taking votes from Tories in marginals on Lynton Crosby's list? Second, if multi-ethnic, metropolitan London rejected Ukip, and preferred the conservatism of Boris, what does that tell the Tories? Third, has Ukip produced any results that make it more likely that they will win seats at Westminster and produce that earthquake Mr Farage keeps mentioning? And fourth, the obvious one: hold off on hard conclusions, let's see what Sunday brings. That said, given that after only a handful of local council declarations we are contemplating all manner of interesting developments, these elections really have turned out to be fascinating.
"Knives out for Miliband as Labour jitters grow" is the Times splash. It says something about the party's state of mind that the bloodletting had begun before the polls had closed. The killer line comes from a leading Labour figure, who tells the Thunderer: "The narrative around Ed Miliband, because it's the truth, is that he looks weird, sounds weird, is weird.". Graham Stringer, meanwhile, told David Dimbleby early this morning that the party had run an "unforgivably unprofessional" campaign. That Labour's last week of campaigning was defined by a picture of Mr Miliband eating a bacon sandwich that went viral and his failure to  identify Swindon Labour's Jim Grant (at least he won't have a new name to learn next time; Labour have fallen short in Swindon). The results outside London, meanwhile, look bad, sound bad, and are bad for Labour. John Curtice tells the Today programme that the party is "clearly well down, something like nine points" compared to two years ago. The party's backward step is best illustrated by the loss of Thurrock; in their No.2 target seat they've lost control of the council they won in 2012. 

As expected, the night has gone badly for the Tories, too."Essex Man is turning to Ukip man" was the verdict on Today earlier; Basildon, Castle Point, Southend and Eric Pickles' home seat of Brentwood have gone from being under Conservative majorities to no overall control. It's the Ukip factor; the party made 11 gains in Basildon and five in Southend and Castle Point.  That Nigel Farage's mob have cost the Tories - and their expected third-place finish in the Euros - is the backdrop to Douglas Carswell's call for a Tory-Ukip pact last night. Mr Carswell's remarks have been picked up in this morning's Sun and he'll be speaking for many in the Conservative grassroots. He should reflect, though, that in 2009, Dave had a twelve-point lead, a stack of council gains in the marginals and still fell short. Ed Miliband has neither. The task for the Tories is to hold their nerve over the coming days. 

Ukip are a force in the North. Rotherham may well be the story of the night, where they've taken 10 out of 21 seats that were available, came top in the popular vote and will now form the main opposition to Labour, but across the North they have made big strides. Having gone from not standing they have taken approximately a third of the vote in Sunderland. In Portsmouth, they've picked up six seats and deprived the Liberal Democrats of their majority; although the Liberals say they've won on the back of ex-Labour voters drawn from the city's working-class. Ukip can no longer be seen as a uniquely Tory malaise. 

A bad night for the Liberals, as expected. Labour now has a majority on Cambridge City Council and are confident that they can take Julian Huppert's parliamentary seat next year. They've held on in Eastleigh against the Ukip assault and they look to have retained Sutton; but they've lost Kingston-upon-Thames - which under the Liberals has the highest council tax in the capital -  to the Tories, and losses in Berrylands and Alexandra - wards within Ed Davey's constituency - will be the cause of sleepless nights on Cowley Street. Meanwhile, any hope of a Liberal revival in Richmond in 2015 looks unlikely; the Tories have held on there as well. 
"Sir- How many people thought Theresa May's address to the Police Federation showed her as a future leader of more gravitas, forcefulness and strength of purpose than David Cameron?" asks Graham Bond in the Telegraph's letters page. "Her kitten heels have an inner core of tempered steel," is the verdict of Anthony Rodriguez of Staines-upon-Thames.

"Ministers signal start of the great oil rush" is our splash. Large parts of southern England will today be identified as targets for fracking by the government. Dave meanwhile says that Britain is going "all out for shale". The hope is that shale oil will reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil and bring down energy bills to boot. It could be another HS2-style source of backbench discomfort; the chairman of Michael Fallon's own association has  said he will not be able support fracking under homes without the owners' consent.POWELL TO LIBYA
Jonathan Powell, career diplomat and former Downing Street chief of staff during Mr Tony's administration, has been appointed envoy to Libya by the PM. Mr Powell, a renowned diplomat and problem-solver, will be tasked with helping to pull the troubled country back from the brink of crisis and internal conflict. The FT's Kiran Stacey has the story.

The Morning Briefing is edited by Stephen Bush. You can follow him on Twitter here. 

Daggers drawn in Croydon this morning: 
@SteveReedMP: Croydon Tories will be regretting they took @GavinBarwellMP's advice to divert campaigners out of Ashburton into Addiscombe

In the Telegraph

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THROUGHOUT THE DAY:  Results from the local elections.
2200:  Sky News' 'Decision Time' begins and runs throughout the night.
2235: BBC coverage begins with BBC Question Time and runs throughout the night.