Shortly after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, I thought that he would win the next election whenever it was called. Almost a year on, and I’m now convinced that he will lose it whenever it is called.
Last week’s local election results were truly appalling for Labour. In council after council – sometimes even ward by ward – it looks as though voters have carefully thought about who was the strongest challenger to Labour, and then voted for them. The kicking could have happened in last year's Assembly elections, but somehow it didn't. There’s something pretty ironic and inherently unfair about Brown getting the kicking for failing to return to Labour’s roots while the man who turned his back on those roots in the first place somehow got away with it, but such is politics.
There is a crumb of comfort for Labour in that this looks more like an anti-Labour vote than a pro-Tory or pro-Plaid vote. Outside Labour-held wards, there wasn’t that much change, and much of what did occur is down to local circumstances (and there will always be some particular issues in particular areas when it comes to council elections). But it's a pretty small crumb. It really doesn't matter whether people vote for an alternative because they're for that alternative or because they’re just against Labour – the alternative still wins.
The pundits talk about how this would look if translated into the next General Election. I suppose that’s what pundits do – and they even get paid for it – but it's often a dangerous extrapolation. In that the punishment meted out to Labour this time appears to have been for 'national' rather than 'local' sins, perhaps there is some validity, but for me the real significance is less in the numbers than in that it adds to a general mood which makes a Labour recovery harder to see.
So, can they recover? It’s not impossible even now, but there are some real problems.
Firstly, in many areas, the party’s councillors and their families and close friends have effectively been the sum total of the party’s organisation on the ground. It is these people who have delivered the leaflets and knocked the doors. Many of them are no longer young, if I may express it in those terms, and there will be a real question over the extent of their motivation if they no longer have the personal incentive - or, indeed, if they even feel that the party nationally has let them and their communities down.
Secondly, the senior spokespersons seem to be in some sort of state of denial. After ten years or more of spin, where what they say is not what they do, they still expect people to believe what they say. There has been a succession of people saying effectively that "the people are telling us to listen to them". Indeed so - but how about actually listening rather than just telling us you’re going to listen? Without being seen to do anything different, this just looks like more spin – and insincere and superficial to boot.
Does Labour’s collapse matter? I think it does. Even if the most extreme projections are true, and the Tories do better than ever before in Wales at the General Election, they will still not win a majority of Welsh seats or votes; and most of us here in Wales would prefer to have a non-Tory government. A Tory government based on an English majority is something which should concern us greatly here in Wales. I for one am far from convinced that they have really changed, whatever their spokespeople may say.
There are two bold steps which Labour could take now to protect us, or at least mitigate the effects of such a result.
The first is to make sure that we hold and win a referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly. I believe that this could be won, if there was a serious campaign in favour, even in the current anti-Labour climate.
The second is that Brown could, whilst he still has a large majority in the Commons, introduce STV for parliamentary elections. If people could rank the parties in order of preference, it would reduce the temptation for tactical anti-Labour voting. It would thus mean that the change in the number of seats between the parties would be smaller than the latest opinion polls suggest, if second and third preference votes were taken into effect.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that Brown simply doesn’t do bold.