After Thursday's local elections, devolved assembly / parliament elections and the AV referendum it is time to reflect on the political tea-leaves.
How will the Liberal Democrats respond to such a bad week? The only option is to keep calm and carry on. They built a record in local government through focusing on doing a good job and now they need to do the same nationally and build a track record which they can defend. Anything else and they are toast. Beyond this they have to pull off a double by appearing united as a party whilst also becoming clearer about who they are. One thing being in government does is to shine a light on a party and the impression is that Lib Dems have often said different things in the north and south of England; from now on a more consistent message will be needed. Perhaps the result of the AV referendum will also cause them to wonder if they not only picked the wrong date but the wrong deal; what if they had got agreement for PR in local government as part of the coalition deal?
Labour are the limp salad here, the English Council results are OK but unexceptional, Wales was a decent result but Scotland feels like a rout. Whilst they haven’t gone into meltdown since last years general election they have yet to provide a credible alternative. In particular their economic policy is a nonsense; the notion that the Labour party would not be instigating a programme of public expenditure reductions if they were in government is laughable and the difference between their proposals and those currently been instigated are relatively small. When Alan Johnson was Education Secretary he told a select committee that they would withdraw EMA, yet in opposition they oppose it. What they have to establish is a realistic programme that sets out how they would make spending reductions but applying them more sensitively to reflect their desire to focus on those with greatest need. The biggest challenge is for Ed Miliband; by supporting Yes2AV so clearly, together with the problems in Scotland he is in danger of being cast as the leader who can’t win an election. He has got to change that fast.
The Conservatives will be the most cheerful (of the English Parties). But there are icebergs lurking with the NHS, fixed term parliaments, Europe, etc. If I were David Cameron I would be tougher on the Lib Dems now but he has a vested interest in not provoking a walk out by them yet. Meanwhile they have to develop a narrative of aspiration that reaches out to a wider section of the electorate than their core voters and ensure that the Lib Dems aren't painted as the ones who make the Conservatives 'nicer'.
Beyond the parties standing the referendum calls into question the oft quoted notion that Britain has a progressive majority. Whilst it may be true of those on Twitter it is clearly not true of the population as a whole. Over the next few years politicians of all types will need to reflect on the need to reconnect with the wider electorate and not just play to the political classes; you can’t build a winning political party if you secretly want to dissolve the electorate and call a new one. They will need to develop strategies to succeed but also better tactical awareness because for all the talk of PR and new politics the reality is an adversarial fight in the sandpit.
I will watch with interest to see how it pans out.
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