Forget all the TV studio spin, that’s the real question. And for the answer, look hard at the results in the local elections in London, says John McTernan
The campaign is over, the voting has taken place, it’s all over bar the shouting. And, boy, will there be some shouting. From Friday morning until Sunday evening – and after – there will be hours and hours of analysis. Here’s a handy guide to what the parties will be saying, what they really mean and what you should look out for.
First, everyone will claim victory in Europe – though in the topsy-turvy world of spin, coming fourth or fifth will be claimed as a triumph. For Ukip, coming first or second in the European elections will be a vindication of their intransigence over the EU and a rejection of the mainstream – both the parties and the newspapers – which has attacked them.
Labour will call topping the poll, or being runner-up, another step towards forming a government. The Tories will describe the elections as a protest vote and argue that voters have merely lent UKIP their support.
Even if they lose all their Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the Liberal Democrats will still boast that they were the only party to challenge Nigel Farage directly. The Greens’ line will be short and sweet – “Please don’t forget about us.” Whatever the result in Scotland and across the UK, the SNP will say it means “Vote Yes”.
The real meaning of the elections is slightly more difficult to divine. There is the argument from precedent – but there are contradictory lessons to draw.
On the one hand, since 1984 the main opposition party has come top in the euro-poll. On the other, the Tories have won every European election since 1994. And, they have never in their existence come third in a UK-wide election.
Second, each party will reserve its strongest attacks for its real rivals. So, Ukip and Labour will glory in Tory loss of seat or votes, declaring it the end of the road for Cameron, or at least the beginning of the end of the road.
In return, the Tories will make a two-pronged argument. Only they can deliver an “In/Out” referendum on the European Union, so Ukip voters can only get what they want by coming home to a governing party of the Right. In addition, if Labour can’t beat them with Ukip’s help, when can they hope to win? The Lib Dems will attack everyone else for not having debates with Farage. And the SNP will attack Labour.
The reality check? First and foremost, we are in uncharted territories. There hasn’t been a period of four-party politics across the UK before – or more truthfully four and a half parties including the Greens. In Scotland, that’s five and a half parties. With votes splintering across parties, predictions are more complicated than ever.
This is, secondly, exacerbated by the question of turnout. Traditionally, European elections are hard to motivate voters to bother with. In 1999 a record low was struck of 24 per cent, and even the record high in 2004 was only 38.5 per cent. A protest is as easily registered by abstention as by a vote. Every percentage point the turnout falls below 40 per cent is an added premium for the parties organised best on the ground. That means advantage Labour across the UK, plus the SNP too in Scotland. In contrast, Ukip has angry voters but they are disorganised – how motivated are they individually to buck the trend of non-voting?
Third, the real result doesn’t matter. The important thing will not, in the end, be who has won – whatever happens Farage emerges triumphant. Instead, what matters is the fight to define who lost the election. Obviously, the Lib Dems lost big time – but that has been coming since they joined the Tories in government.
The true, titanic struggle is between the Conservative Party and Labour. In this, the Tories have a huge problem. The relentless rise of Ukip is the political story of this year. Their strength is best measured not in votes, but in the fact that they have driven David Cameron’s foreign policy. The British Prime Minister, leader of the sixth-biggest economy in the world, has been dictated by Nigel Farage, leader of a party without a single MP in the House of Commons.
That is weakness, plain and simple, but their response has been audaciously bold. They have framed this election as all about Ed Miliband. It takes some chutzpah to argue that the worst ever national election result for the Tory Party is a crisis for the Labour Party, but – ably aided by Lynton Crosby – the Tories are doing just that.
Will it stick? The weekend will tell us. But beneath it all, despite the spin, there will be some real indications of the trajectory of British politics for the next year and beyond if you look carefully. To win a majority at the next election, the Tories need to win 19 seats while Labour needs to gain 68. So who is on track?
The key is to watch the English local election results as they come out. Though they are for councils it is possible to aggregate all the votes cast for a range of the marginal seats that will determine the next general election.
Every council in London is voting – which is a real test for both parties. Just two years ago Boris Johnson won London for the Tories. And Labour has few easily winnable targets there. So which way will the English capital go? Will it swing strongly to Labour? The last opinion poll showed a 13-point lead for Labour. But the proof will be in the votes actually cast – particularly in the suburbs, long Tory strongholds and Boris’s base.
One borough to watch is Redbridge. It has long been held by the Tories with their rule occasionally punctuated by a hung council. It contains the Labour target of Ilford North – a hard one for Labour to crack and all the way down at 83rd in their target list. If Redbridge goes Labour and Ilford North is a notional Labour gain, then things are pretty good for Ed Miliband and bad for David Cameron.