As expected the results of the local elections which came out on Friday and the European elections which were published last night have proven to be at least as bad as the worst projections for the Labour Party. After coming third behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the local elections, their position was even worse in the European elections. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats having made progress in the local elections could only hold their own in the European elections. Yet for the Conservatives the picture is not one of unalloyed joy either. Apart from the result in Wales which is an undoubted triumph for the Tories, the progress that they have demonstrated, even despite the fall of Labour, may still prove to be insufficient to gain a stable majority at the next general election. Meanwhile the spectacle of two neo-Nazis being elected certainly made me feel quite nauseous, and I suspect that the Conservatives will feel the same.
So what do the two results prove?
Well, on those numbers the Liberal Democrats would hold their own and probably even make some gains at the next general election. It also, sadly, shows that the SNP will do well in Scotland- with a real risk that Scotland leaves the UK. The Conservatives will, at the very least, make solid progress across the country.
Yet the most remarkable feature is still that fall of Labour. Although it is unlikely that the European result of 16% would be duplicated at a general election, with a much higher turnout, the fact is that Labour, in terms of the vote percentage, is on course for a result at least as bad as their 1983 disaster. Their only positive is the fact that the electoral system is currently skewed in their favour, so they are unlikely to fall much below 250 seats- although if tactical voting against them were strong enough, that could still happen.
With Liberal Democrats still around the 60-70 level, and the SNP at -say- 12 seats, and even the prospect of one or two Green MPs, the task for the Conservatives of forming a majority government looks extremely difficult.
Of course even on their own side, there is a general recognition that Labour has run out of road and they should now leave office as quickly as possible (Labour politicians would call this "a period of reflection and recovery"). However Gordon Brown continues to hang on like grim death- and for Labour there are good tactical reasons why he should. In the Labour world, the current situation is probably the nadir of their fortunes, and they can hope- however mistakenly- for a recovery in the economy to help them. Even if one accepts that Labour will inevitably lose in May 2010, they can at least then go for a complete new broom, whereas a leader chosen now could only ever hope to be a caretaker.
However such hopes could prove to be a disastrous miscalculation, on a par with Mr. Brown's decision to avoid an election in the first autumn of his Premiership. The recovery will be slow in coming, when it comes at all. Between then and now unemployment will spike dramatically, to the serious detriment of government finances- cuts are need now, and the longer they are delayed, the more savage they will have to be. The large number of foreigners who have staffed the City, and fixed our plumbing are already leaving the UK, and our competitiveness is falling as a result. The election of the BNP is not exactly a welcome mat to these many talented, skilled and necessary people. In the economy, things are not likely to improve in a way that will benefit Labour over the next eleven months. Indeed if the high-risk gamble of quantitative easing fails, then the UK would be faced with both rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, and any incoming government will have a real crisis on their hands.
Britain needs a new direction, yet there remains scepticism that the Conservatives can truly deliver. Mr. Cameron has not yet made the breakthrough that he needs to, and although doubtless, the Tories will redouble their efforts, the scale of the problem is that they may fall short, no matter what, simply because the system is so skewed against them.
The Liberal Democrats' results are more solid than they appear. Although the loss of Somerset and Devon county councils was clearly bad news, it was off-set by much more solid results in their target Parliamentary constituencies. On these numbers, the Conservatives will not gain Cheltenham and probably not Taunton either. Meanwhile the polls have been stronger for the party of late- a clear positive trend. So it now seems quite likely that the Lib Dems can even top their result of 2005. As the likelihood of a hung Parliament becomes a more settled thing, there will be greater attention given to the Party over the next few months- a situation that historically boosts their support.
The Conservatives will need to start providing answers to the charges that they are lightweights- and I expect that much closer to the election we ought to see some policy meat that finally tells us what the Tories actually want to do in office. If not, then the charges of political cowardice will be accurate.
As for Labour, they face an existential crisis. Politically exhausted, they can only offer incompetent managerialism and the devious tactics of Mandelson- whose fingerprints are all over the so far successful attempt to head off revolt in the party- and indeed Brown himself. They deserve total annihilation, yet the electoral biases are such that even if they are decisively behind the Conservatives in the percentage of the votes, they can still thwart a Conservative majority.
Yet in the end, the fact is that Labour has been destroyed in large parts of the country, and is even even losing its grip on its heartlands in Scotland and Wales. Once removed from office, the wizardry of Blair's "New Labour" project will finally destroy the Socialist party that it used as its platform. Expediency and opportunism were poor stars to steer by, and the Labour party will hit the rocks once the rudder of government power has slipped from their grasp.
"The strange death of Labour England" may be the doctoral thesis of 2016. The question for the Liberal Democrats will be how to prosper in the more pluralist, more multi-party system that emerges from the eclipse of the party of massed labour.
Still, at least the Liberal Democrats understand such politics. In the end the failure of David Cameron to grasp the thorn of electoral reform may show that the Conservatives too may also struggle in this strange new political ocean.