It is a truth universally acknowledged that all Governing Parties lose seats in mid-term Local Government Elections. Tony Blair lost mid-term seats between his landslides in 1997 and 2001 as did Margaret Thatcher between her's in 1983 and 1987. I'm trying to keep my blogs a bit shorter so I won't diverge into why this happens but rather stick to how it happens.
It happens in three ways.
1. Previous supporters of the National Governing Party show their disillusionment by not voting at all. Those many who vote at a general Election but who do not turn out for local polls are not the same people every time. Far from it. In the bigger picture however this group is almost unimportant. If they haven't switched to the opposition (or anybody else) mid-term then they are unlikely ever to do so. And they will still vote at a General Election.
2. People vote for protest Parties. Historically this is one of the reasons the Lib-Dems traditionally do well in mid-terms. Certainly they have a genuine tradition of "pavement politics" which plays better at this level but the most honest of them would admit that there is also a "none of the above" element to this (part of their) mid-term vote. This vote might be important for the recipients of it, particularly if they believe they might hang on to it, but it's effectively useless to the main opposition. If they can't get this vote from the government mid-term they are unlikely ever to do so.
3. Previous supporters of the Governing Party switch to the opposition. This is the only really important group. Those who aren't just pissed off with their own side but sufficiently impressed with the alternative to (at least) consider giving them their support.
Now, having urged the Libs towards a bit of honesty above, I'm now going to do the same for my own side. Last week there weren't nearly enough of this last group. And that's a major problem.
Now, I know all the caveats: That these elections were only (largely) in parts of the Country that have never been sympathetic to the Labour Party; that in the few marginal Parliamentary Seats actually being contested we did quite well; that even if we didn't do particularly well, nonetheless under First Past the Post, UKIP is a major problem for the Tories.
All these things are true but a strategy based on an advantageous result between the Tories and UKIP is surely not where we should be now? The analogy is with a football team who, losing 2-0 in the last game of the season might yet avoid relegation dependent on other results. It's better than being actually down but hardly an ideal end to the year if you're more interested in what's happening on the radio than what's happening on the pitch.
I've thought long and hard about alternative explanations for why Labour is in this pickle but it is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion: there is simply no enthusiasm for the idea of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.
I've been going to Scottish Labour Party Conferences for a very long time and the Party Leaders speech is always a "big thing". A much "bigger thing" than the Scottish Leader's. Nationalists might protest that this is not as it should be but they should accept from me that it is nonetheless the case.
But this year, Ed came and went from Inverness largely in a spirit of indifference. We weren't unhappy to see him, we just weren't that bothered. Young members weren't pressing forward to get in the background of his photographs; older hacks to announce, on shaking his hand, that they had now done the same with every leader since Gaitskell. And no member of any age looked him in the eye and stated with any sincerity that they couldn't wait for him to be in Downing Street. Johann's speech on the following day generated an altogether greater buzz although she is, in theory, much, much further from power and, for the Labour Party at least, also a much more minor figure.
So, if Ed generates so little enthusiasm in the Labour Party, is it any wonder that he fails to do so in the Country?
Why is that? Sure he might be accused of being policy light but all Parties are policy light at this point of the electoral cycle. Sure he looks a bit odd, but Gordon Brown (who, let's not forget pre-office at least, was longed for by much of the Party and even a significant part of the electorate) was nonetheless no oil painting. John Major, the unjustly forgotten man who got the biggest Tory vote ever, was portrayed on spitting image as a grey man obsessed with peas.
No, Ed's problem is that he has go no back story. He is a professional apparatchik who has never had a job of any sort outside politics. And back story is important in politics. Cameron is in some ways open to a similar criticism but the Tories built a back story for him. Even the bits that Labour didn't like; the silver spoon upbringing; the high-jinks at university; the "born to rule" Eton narrative provided a certain colour. Some of the rest of it was created, such as the famous bicycling incident. And one bit of it, the tragedy of his wee boy, struck a chord across the political divide. By the eve of the Election however, like it or loath it, you felt you knew something about David Cameron.
What do we know about Ed? That his dad had a much more interesting life than him and, eh, that's it. For there is nothing to know. He moved seamlessly from University politics to Special Adviser; from Special Adviser, on the back of patronage, to being Member of Parliament for a place with which he had no previous connection; from Member of Parliament to Cabinet and from Cabinet to Leader, pausing only to lose a General Election on the way. The only turbulence on that journey was that he beat his brother for that final post but no matter how that came about its difficult to see how it might be woven into a positive narrative. It is not enough
So is it any surprise that he proves less appealing to potential Tory defectors than Nigel Farage? For Farage is the master of back story. We on the left might shout about his Party's xenophobia; about their wholly unrealistic spending and tax cutting pledges; even about a false narrative as to how Farage himself is where he is. That's not the point. Who would you rather have a pint with is the question many, many voters ask? Who would be more entertaining company? Above all, who wouldn't lose sight in the pub argument of the importance of buying his own round?
I want to finish however with a blunter analogy: the reality talent show. Much as it is mocked, "the journey" is an important part of their narrative.
So it's the middle of December and you've got one vote. The finalists are on the one hand somebody who went to stage school; who then trained with one of the leading musical artists of the day, who also happened to be a family friend, and was then found a job in their backing group. If they don't win they've got a cast job lined up in a new West End musical. Their rival is somebody who left school at sixteen to work in a hairdressers and who, before the show, made a bit of extra money singing in pubs and clubs. If they don't win, they've managed to keep their hairdressing job open and secure bookings from a number of Miners' Welfares. Before either sings a note, who are you voting for?
Narrative is important. And regrettably Ed's narrative does not have the X-Factor.
It's no excuse that he (only) beat two others with almost identical career paths.
We can do better.
Time to think again.