In examining the results of these tests we should remember that our starting point was the very low base of 2007 council election results.
We gained control of one council – Ipswich, with five Labour gains and seven holds in the town’s 16 wards.
We came very close in Waveney (+8), finishing level with the Tories who lost control of the council.
We retained control in Stevenage (no change) and Luton (+9).
We made encouraging progress in Bedford (+5) and had significant advances in a few seats where we lost the parliamentary seat in 2005, namely Cambridge (+4), Peterborough (+3) and Welwyn Hatfield (+4).
But we made disappointing progress in Harlow (+2), Thurrock (+2), Basildon (+1) and Norwich (+2) where we had held parliamentary seats until 2010, although in all these except Basildon a repeat of these results next year would see Labour take control. However, there was no progress at all in Great Yarmouth.
Some ‘red shoots’ emerged on councils we have rarely or never controlled, but they were rather small and thinly spread, and we remain with very small numbers of councillors on such councils.
The one notable exception was King’s Lynn and West Norfolk where we gained nine seats. Otherwise the best that we could do was in Suffolk Coastal, Babergh and Tendring where three gains in each took our total councillors in each to 4, 3 and 9 respectively.
There were many councils where we made no gains and far too many councils where we still have no councillors at all (North Norfolk, South Norfolk, Uttlesford, Maldon, Rochford, East Cambridgeshire, Fenland, Huntingdonshire and East Hertfordshire)
In most areas, our share of the vote increased from a year ago, and Labour voters seemed much keener to turn out than in 2011. But the strength of the recovery varied – often according to the level and capacity of the campaign organisation.
In several areas there was a significant movement from Liberal Democrat to Labour (as reflected in national opinion polls), most obviously in Cambridge and Luton, but in other places, such as Colchester and Watford, the Lib Dems retained more of their vote and more seats than might have been expected from those national polls. In other councils, such as North Norfolk and in parts of Hertfordshire, the effect was that the Tories benefitted from the decline in the Lib Dem vote.
The Greens made some progress both in votes, where they sometimes seemed to prosper at the expense of the Lib Dems, and number of candidates fielded. UKIP will probably be disappointed by their showing and we cannot rely on them to take significant number of Tory votes to our advantage.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these elections was the resilience of the Tory vote, almost across the board. We might have expected to benefit more from the unpopularity of Tory driven government and council cuts, especially in terms of differential turnout with some Tories at least having doubts and staying at home while anger motivated Labour voters to turn out.
However, the effect of the referendum, resulting in a turnout 5-10 per cent higher than normal for council elections, and the success of the Tories in linking themselves to the ‘No’ vote, more than negated any normally expected differential turnout in favour of opposition parties. While the consequence will have been disappointing for some defeated Labour candidates, it does mean that we in the East of England are not left with false confidence or inflated optimism as we look towards the next general election.
It is clear that to win the next election we will need to do more than simply feed off the national collapse of Liberal Democrat support. It remains a major challenge to win the seats necessary to secure a overall or working majority in the next parliament. We must win over some of the people who voted and continue to vote Tory.
While it appeared a year ago that the verdict of much of the electorate on who was to blame for the recession was uncertain and unclear, views are now very polarised. Most Tory voters blame Labour for ‘ruining the economy’ to justify their continued support for the Conservatives. Labour voters are angry about cuts and broken ConDem promises.
We still have to win the economic argument that our approach to deficit reduction was right and that ConDem policies are making things worse not better.
The policy issues, such as immigration and benefits abuse which damaged us in 2010 are still there on the doorstep. We know that we have not addressed these yet as we undergo our policy review.
However, they must be addressed and people want tough policies. This can be done through a fairness agenda. It is fair to be tough on the abuse of the immigration and benefits systems and we need fairness in access to housing, jobs and public services.
Good campaigns were fought in some council areas. We need to make sure that we bring more up to the standard of the best. We need to share and learn from best practice.
Where we won in 2010 (Luton), we became considerably stronger.
Where last year’s defeat was close, moderate or better than might have been expected, we made a comeback in most these areas.
Where we were soundly or heavily defeated last year, there was, with one or two exceptions, not much sign of recovery.
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