international analysis and commentary

Troubled waters ahead for David Cameron after local elections

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Local elections in the UK on May 3rd have been characterized by one of the lowest turnouts recorded, a growing anti-political wind and the electoral collapse of the parties of the coalition government. The result will structurally affect British politics in the long run. The severe defeat faced by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could be described as almost historical.

The Conservatives have lost 403 councillors and the control of 12 Local Councils compared to the last local election. For Liberal Democrats the defeat was even more dramatic, as they lost more than 329 councillors representing more than 44% of their seats on local councils. This is one of the heaviest defeats ever for the junior partner in the governmental coalition, leaving leader Nick Clegg’s leadership weaker and questioned by his party. The electoral collapse of the Lib-Dems follows a trend, with the party losing more than 700 councillors last year and almost destroying the party as a nationwide political force. A strong presence in the local government has been the key element for the Lib-Dems to survive in the national arena. Having lost its local base, the party risks losing its relevance and to arrive politically cracked at the next national election.

If the Lib-Dems and Tories are still analyzing the size and consequences of their defeat, for Labour this was a shining day. Numbers in this case are useful to understand the extent of the victory. Labour gained more than 824 seats in local councils compared to the last local election. A success was not expected of this size, spread over the country across the South, East, the Midlands and Wales. Ed Miliband’s party was also able to  keep Glasgow, one of Labour’s historical strongholds, beating out the Scottish National Party. There is still “work to do” as Ed Miliband immediately pointed out when the results were clear. An important victory for the young Labour leader, it will likely help him run in the 2015 general election as party PM candidate – which will give him a stronger grip over the party. The total percentage of votes achieved by Labour is 38%, and even though this data is partial and not completely reliable due to the low electoral turnout, it is a good start for the Labour party in its challenge against the Tories in the next national election.

Only London ruined this shining day for Labour, but the conservative Boris Johnson’s win was narrower than expected. Moreover, London represents an exception in the national context. The results of the mayoral election in the capital came out 26 hours after the closing of the ballots due to several glitches in the counting process.  Results were in line with the polls and Boris Johnson won with a 3% margin, the tightest in the short history of the London mayoral election. As expected, the low voter turnout helped him to defeat “Red” Ken  Livingstone, in what was more a battle of personality than policies. A long and grueling campaign was characterized by the “Ken” vs “Boris” battle, with Livingston often appearing to the electorate as “past his sell-by date”. In order to better understand this singular mayoral election, it is best to focus on Livingstone. The defeat of the 66-year-old Labour candidate is also due to his public image built during his 41-year political career, in which he won several elections (11 out of 14) and he was for several years one the most important political figures in Labour. Livingston is also one of the most controversial English politicians, and has had a long career in politics in which he made himself many powerful enemies.

The Labour candidate faced several challenges, but the most controversial one was the reluctance of his own party to sustain him in this race. The strong anti-political wind  growing among the electorate and is the other key element to understanding his defeat. This is proved by the success of Labour in the Local Council in which it gained 4 seats arriving at 12, becoming the more represented party, as the Tories lost 3 seats from the 11 held. It is very likely that instead of Livingstone another different Labour candidate could have easily won the election, making this defeat the last chapter in Livingstone’s political career. The others candidates in were cannibalized by the two powerful electoral campaigns on which the media were focusing. Indeed, they gained less than 18% of the total preferences, a clear sign of polarization of the local political arena. Boris’ victory was the only good news of the day for the Tories, but with the defeat at the national level it represents by far the worst possible scenario for Cameron’s political future.

In addition, proposals to change the structure of local government to include direct elections of mayors were rejected by referendum in 9 out of 10 cities, the exception being Bristol. The negative response of the electorate to this referendum particularly pushed by Cameron and his inner political circle could be counted as one of the bigger miscalculations of his political career. Voters said no for several reasons, from the lack of clarity about what the new mayoral powers would be to the anti-political mood fuelled by the political strategy of the Tories passing for the fierce opponents of Labour, the Lib-Dems and trade unions.

Cameron’s leadership of the Tories is fast losing grip due to several scandals involving members of his cabinet and the economic crisis. The right-wing of the party is plotting against his leadership and smiling at Boris Johnson’s success as he is seen by this side of the party as the most appropriate candidate for the next general election. His personal victory in the London mayoral election is seen as a perfect stepping stone to gain the leadership of the party. Perils for Cameron are rising in every direction, the coalition with the Lib-Dems is weaker than ever and his main partner Nick Clegg is fighting to save his political future and his leadership of his party. The near future of Cameron’s political agenda will not immediately change even though rumors of civil wars are rising in the coalition, and the prime minister needs to find a way not to be trapped in a long political conflict with the junior partner and with the right wing of his own party calling for a more “conservative” approach. The Queen’s upcoming speech will be important to understand which direction Cameron will take. On the other hand, Labour and Ed Miliband can modestly celebrate: the work to be done to get back into government is beginning and the political platform or manifesto is still unclear to most, but the party machine is waking up with more than 68,000 members gained in one year. The scandals involving the government coalition will probably do the rest.