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May 5, 2012 / ultrafox1963

Labour move forward despite London blow

The results of this week’s local authority elections will delight and enthuse Labour supporters. The party’s achievement in taking over 800 seats from opponents is a sign that the failings evident during the Blair and Brown eras are being forgiven.

A particularly impressive feature of these victories was that they were not confined to traditional heartlands of Scotland, Wales and northern England. Labour took control of a string of southern councils, including Plymouth, Southampton and Norwich. Even Witney and Chipping Norton,notorious Tory citadels, were engulfed in the red tide, adding further discomfort to local MP David Cameron, while the handful of seats defended by the British National Party were all successfully recaptured and the slide of Liberal Democrats to electoral oblivion continued.

Meanwhile voters in several major cities decisively rebuffed attempts by the government (and some Labour elements) to introduce executive mayors. Of the ten areas compelled, at considerable expense, to hold referendums, only Bristol voted in favour. However Liverpool, which had already introduced the switch, gave overwhelming backing to local leader Joe Anderson in its first mayoral election.

There was, however, a significant prize which eluded Labour. The attempt by former London mayor Ken Livingstone to regain the post he lost in 2008 proved unsuccessful. The consequences of his defeat by incumbent Boris Johnson will be felt way beyond the capital.

This was a city that, even in the depths of the 2010 General Election, backed Labour in massive numbers. With opinion poll ratings looking far more favourable this time around, particularly after a series of scandals and a disastrously-handled budget, Livingstone’s return to City Hall appeared a formality.

But the survival instincts of the Tory opponent, who also displayed the combined endearing qualities of Silvio Berlusconi and Justin Bieber, proved sufficient to secure a second term of office. Exploiting his celebrity status at every opportunity, and abetted by compliant, indulgent and often highly partisan local media, the mayor ensured that this election was fought largely on his terms, instead of focussing on key policy areas like housing and transport. A series of smear campaigns against Livingstone, which he may have been able to withstand in the past, also caused considerable damage to his efforts.

Even before the conclusion of the count, the recriminations within Labour ranks had already started to rage online, with many Blairites bemoaning the supposed weaknesses of the candidate selection process. Such sectarian squabbles need to be crushed very quickly by the party leadership, otherwise the nationwide progress made during the past two years will soon be halted.

In any event, it is highly unlikely that Johnson will serve out his full four years of office. Some Tory voices, impressed by his two mayoral victories, are already calling on him to challenge Cameron for the leadership of the Conservative Party, arguing that this is the only means of retaining power at the 2015 General Election.  This is a challenge which his ego may well be unlikely or unwilling to resist.

But even if he can find a constituency willing to give him a route back to Parliament, this option is fraught with danger. First of all, there is no certainty that the coalition with the Liberal Democrats would hold in the event of a coup of this type. Secondly, there are elements of his own party who would be unsettled by such a blatant display of ambition and megalomania, and whose loyalties would not necessarily be guaranteed. Finally, and most significantly of all, the character flaws that have been successfully concealed at local government level would be highly unlikely to withstand the increased glare of national scrutiny.

Johnson’s victory may turn out to be one which, in the long-term, the Tories may have more cause than Labour to regret.

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