Talking Politics

After May 3rd’s voting, coalition politics just got harder

Local elections are about local communities, of course. But these polls could have a direct impact on the behaviour of the coalition that governs us all.

Looking back at developments over the 24 hours which have passed since polls closed, it's clear that Labour have achieved something around the top end of their expectations. Pressure on Ed Miliband's leadership has diminished rather than increased. The party has performed well in England, Scotland and Wales. And now, even if Ken failed to quite get over the finish line, London can be added to that list too. This was a good set of elections for the Labour party.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have suffered one of their toughest nights in recent years. In 15 years, in fact: they were fighting seats won in their 2008 high-water mark, in broadly urban seats, after two years of being in government at a time of tough spending cuts. The party had a mixed performance in the north of England - mostly bad - and failed to offset those setbacks in the south against the Liberal Democrats, who managed to hold their own against their senior coalition partners. Boris' victory is a welcome distraction from the national picture, which has seen the loss of 405 councillors.

These were local elections, not referendums on the national government. But May 3rd's voting has three direct consequences on the ongoing struggle for parliament in the 2015 general election.

The coalition, having legislated its priorities in its opening two-year parliamentary session, is now moving into the implementation phase for a number of its key reforms. Unfortunately implementation relies on the cooperation of councils, which are responsible for the provision of many public services. Now the balance of power in the country's local authorities has shifted leftwards, pushing through the coaltion's cherished policies has just got harder.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will also be relying on their quiet army of activists to fight the 2015 campaign. Every councillor lost between now and then undermines their ability to perform well. Analysis suggests that the current deterioration in support for the Tories might not necessarily be large enough for this to have a decisive impact. Still, this is an process of attrition - and there are two more sets of local elections to come before 2015. Time enough for further setbacks which could strengthen Labour's hand in three years' time.

Finally, the performance of fringe parties - notably Ukip - will only intensify already tense relations between the coalition's two parties. David Cameron has characteristically bowed to the wishes of his party whenever it comes to a clash between right-wingers and the Lib Dems. Will he do the same now the Conservatives feel extra pressure to move to the right? Could that further destabilise the coalition, as Lib Dems issue demands that Nick Clegg be more "spiky"?

This has been another agonising night for Clegg's party. Its grassroots had already taken an enormous battering in last year's elections and was forced to repeat the ordeal again in 2012. Its leadership is playing the long game, hoping voters will give it the benefit of the doubt come 2015. But if there is no base to mobilise those voters, how will the rewards of perseverance be reaped? The Lib Dems have few friends in Westminster at the moment, so could be forced to stomach even more right-wing policies from the government.

It was an odd atmosphere in those five heady days of May 2010, wasn't it? Anything seemed possible. Cleggmania was a recent memory. The Lib Dems had been building up to their moment in power for decades.

Two years later and the dream is turning into a nightmare. The electorate appears deeply unimpressed with the coalition experiment. Its disapproval, forcefully expressed at the ballot boxes on Thursday, has made an already tough challenge for the Tories and Lib Dems even tougher.

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