Thursday 3rd May sees local government elections across the country, most importantly for 40 of the 120 Birmingham City Council wards. Currently holding 56 seats, the Labour group stands poised to seize back control after eight years of Tory-Lib Dem rule. A net gain of five councillors will tip the balance; hopefully we win even more.
The mood on the doorstep is promising – those who voted Labour in 2010 and 2011 (and who successfully voted in several new councillors) are staying with us. National-level polls look promising, even with just under four weeks to go. However what is most noticeable is the level of anger directed towards the government, both by our supporters and those of no declared preference. In the latter instance a dislike of the Tories does not mean support for us. Too often I hear the common refrain “They’re both as bad as one another”. This is frequently coupled with “they’re all in it for themselves”, or “there’s no difference between the main parties any more.” Tragically these clichéd anti-political statements are most common in the more deprived areas.
Why? It is true that in government we were perceived as forgetting our traditional base. It is probably true that Labour neglected those less well off while pandering to the already privileged middle classes. Where we did immeasurable good (the minimum wage, proper funding for health and education) people have already adjusted their base levels and forgotten what existed before. Some people simply grew bitter as we failed to live up to high expectations. None of this justifies the intellectual laziness of the anti-politics sentiments, but it perhaps helps to explains them.
In short, just because people are learning anew why so many of us hate the Tories, a Labour vote is not inevitable. There has been enough analysis of the Bradford West result to be sure of that. YouGov’s fortnightly “Best Prime Minister” question shows that while Cameron has dropped to 30% (-8), Ed Miliband has only risen to 19% (+1). The difference has gone to the “don’t knows”. Most striking of all was today’s Survation voter intention poll which puts UKIP joint with the Liberal Democrats on 11%. All three main party leaders have negative approval ratings among the general public. Barring any great enthusiasm for Labour, the May elections could be a good time for the minor party protest vote.
Looking to Birmingham, the Statement of Persons Nominated was released earlier in the week. All three main parties have candidates in every ward. The Greens (for whom I have a fair amount of sympathy) have also put forward 40 candidates. The BNP and UKIP have both put forward 18 candidates each. In addition there are ‘80s throwbacks the Social Democratic Party and the National Front (both with 4). Add to this one Independent, the Socialist Labour Party (2), and general anti-cuts groupings (3 between them). Finally, don’t forget one lonely English Democrat. None of these minor parties currently have any representation in the City Council. Respect, which does, is fielding no candidates, a decision they may now be regretting.
Will any of these minor parties do well on May 3rd? The excellent Political Betting does a good national analysis for this question. Specific toBirmingham, I would imagine not. The vote margins as they currently stand are too large – only someone withGalloway’s personality cult and the publicity of a by-election could achieve the swings needed. Looking at many wards there still exists a two party system straight out of the 1950’s – it genuinely is a “two horse” race in many cases, no matter how infuriately those dodgy bar charts are. Quinton ward last year saw Labour and the Tories win 89% of the vote between them. If I were a partisan I might be glad that we don’t use some fancy preferential voting system – the power of the “wasted vote” is strong indeed.
Will there be Green (or UKIP) councillors in the Council House after May 3rd? My judgement is “No”. On the other hand, I can easily see the minor party vote having a spoiler effect on one or two results. Looking at last year’s Harborne result, the difference between winning Labour candidate and losing Tory was smaller than the total votes won by the Greens. In a two-way fight one could assume that Green voters would favour Labour over Tory, but you can never be certain. Minor parties from left and right could be responsible for many split votes this time around. It might not cost us a majority, but it could cost us seats.
We should never assume that just because voters are anti-Tory, they are pro-us. We are not the only opposition, and we have to earn the trust and support of the electorate, otherwise there could be more Bradford-style upsets in waiting.