The combination of the local government elections, the referendum vote and the first anniversary of the formation of the coalition have provoked a flood of commentary. Reading this commentary makes me think that the one party that needs to be on guard against complacency is the Conservative party. This is not because the election and the referendum results were bad for the Conservatives – far from it. The problem rather is that far too commentators see them as some sort of unalloyed triumph, which is far from being the case.
As I have said in my previous posts whilst a result favouring the Alternative Vote would have caused some grumbling within the Conservative party this would have posed no danger to Cameron or to his leadership of the Conservative party or to his position as Prime Minister. Such a result would however have greatly strengthened Clegg and thus the stability of the coalition. The strong but entirely predictable vote against the Alternative Vote has by contrast severely weakened Clegg and soured the mood of the coalition. In so far as this puts the future of the coalition and of the government at risk this is bad news for Cameron as I will explain.
As for the local election results, the Conservatives seem to have benefitted in southern England both from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, which resulted in some Liberal Democrat council seats falling to them, and to the fact that the Alternative Vote referendum seems to have encouraged more Conservatives to vote than might otherwise have been the case. Labour voters by contrast were less motivated to vote because on the subject of the referendum they were getting mixed messages from their party.
Even allowing for these facts the local election results were for the Conservatives hardly a triumph. Barely a commentator has noted that a year after losing badly in England in the General Election Labour in the local elections overtook the Conservatives in England and emerged the largest party. Whilst it is certainly true that Labour’s gains have been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats not the Conservatives, coming on top of the virtual disappearance of the Conservatives in Scotland and the Conservatives’ long term weakness in Wales the results suggests that if a General Election were to be held this year the Conservatives would be unlikely to win a majority whilst Labour would regain much of the ground it lost in 2010. The outcome of such a General Election would probably depend on whether the Liberal Democrats managed to hold firm in the west country or whether and if so to what extent the Conservatives were able to make gains there at their expense whilst holding off any challenge from Labour elsewhere. If the Conservatives were able to win seats from the Liberal Democrats in the west country whilst holding off Labour it is just possible that they might win an overall majority but such a majority would be small and even that prospect frankly looks unlikely.
None of this is to say that the Conservatives have any reason to panic. They have achieved a creditable performance but one that as I said in my previous posts is by no mean unprecedented in a new government’s first year.
There are no iron laws in elections but the usual pattern since the Second World War has been for governments to lose ground between elections. I think I am right in saying that the only occasion when a government substantially improved on its previous showing both in terms of votes cast and of seats won was in the General Election in 1955. The 1966 election and the second 1974 elections are not really exceptions because they happened shortly after Labour had taken power and formed a government. By contrast in the Conservative landslide year of 1983 the Conservatives actually polled 600,000 fewer votes than in 1979. The Conservative landslide in that year was due entirely to the collapse of the Labour vote and the switch of Labour votes to the new alliance of the Liberals and the SDP.
There is nothing so far to suggest that this pattern is being broken. The General Election in 2010 took place in conditions that were very favourable to the Conservatives. The Conservatives have not improved on their disappointing result in that year whilst a Labour recovery is definitely underway. It is far too early to try to predict the outcome of an election that may be four years away but I have seen reports that Cameron in contrast to some of his more excited supporters apparently feels that the best the Conservatives can hope for even after the forthcoming boundary changes is another hung parliament. If this is right then the souring of relations within the coalition is bad news for his prospects of remaining Prime Minister beyond the next General Election. Certainly on the basis of the local election results he has no interest in a General Election now, which would almost certainly produce just such an outcome.