In terms of forming a Labour government, the only way is not Essex, but it’ll be an important staging post along that path. The signs, it seems, are promising even if work remains to be done.
So Nigel Farage has and will scoop the headlines, but what of the impact for Labour?
Results are patchy at this stage, but given Labour’s 2010 (and 1992) ‘Southern Discomfort’ the votes already announced in Essex are worthy of note. The overall picture in that county – Conservatives maintaining overall control, Labour, UKIP and the Lib Dems level on nine seats each – obscures wider trends.
Two seats in Labour’s 106 target list went to the polls yesterday in Essex: Basildon and Harlow. The votes in each were encouraging, though the UKIP factor – as, it seems, everywhere – makes things tricky.
In a county wide sense, the Lib Dems actually scrambled quite well – eight of their 12 seats had slim majorities where a 250 vote swing would have seen them lose councillors, and in the end they only lost three seats. Not great, but not perhaps the Lib Dem meltdown some foresaw. Combined with Eastleigh, their grassroots campaigning clearly can offset some of the national picture.
I predicted that UKIP would come second in Essex and have just about been proved right(ish) – though it was always like to be a bit of a scramble for the runner-up spot. The Conservatives have to be seriously worried – the biggest fourth party impact since the war now sees them wrestle with the dilemma faced by Labour in the 1920s and 1980s, and the Liberals in the Edwardian era, what to do about the other party on your side of the political divide?
The long-term ideological questions – Europe, immigration, law and order – will no doubt play out in the coming weeks. But it is worth outlining the present dilemma on the ground.
In the three Harlow constituencies, Labour garnered 8,531 votes to the Tories 6,218. Across the three wards the Labour vote rose between around eight and just over 12 per cent – with Conservative loses at a similar range. UKIP’s 6,747 votes put them in second. Two and a half thousand votes to Labour at the next General Election would unseat Robert Halfron; the fact that even allowing for a low turnout this was pretty much the Labour majority last night must be worrying indeed for Conservative Central Office.
Basildon saw similar trends. 12 and 14 per cent rises in the Labour votes saw them just pip UKIP to the two council seats on offer in Pitsea, with the Tory vote dropping by around 10 per cent. UKIP overtook the Conservatives in second place. The swing needed for 2015 is slightly larger (almost 3,000 votes), but this split on the right may again play into Labour’s hands.
So the stats are good. But how ‘sticky’ is this Labour vote? How much of the eight to 14 per cent rise in the marginals is a genuine conversion to Labour policy, and how much is simply a protest vote from those who didn’t wish to go UKIP?
Labour now needs to get the policy right. Opposing the government has gained the party the platform where office is now seriously in reach, but to keep support in two years’ time the positive, concrete message that the leadership has put forward over the past few weeks now needs to come to the fore.
And what happens to Lib-Lab relations when the Tories inevitably court Nigel Farage?
Current projections of a Labour majority of around 90 will require taking seats like Basildon and Harlow. In terms of forming a Labour government, the only way is not Essex, but it’ll be an important staging post along that path. The signs, it seems, are promising even if work remains to be done.
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