It feels a little like we’ve all got into a time machine in Camden and tick-tocked back to a time before the 2006 council elections. Labour have their feet well and truly under the table once again after winning 30 seats at the Town Hall on Thursday. Most of the advances made by the Lib Dems over the last four years against Labour have been reversed.
The fear for Keith Moffitt’s party was always a squeeze that might be induced by having the local elections and the General Election would be held on the same day, that the turnout would be driven up and that the Labour vote would get its bums into gear in a way that they don’t seem to be bothered to do at council by-elections.
In fact, if Thursday had just been about the council, maybe the Lib Dems would have fared better. Instead, they’ve seen their seat count cut to ten councillors (albeit with the vote in Haverstock to come). What a cruel, unpredictable game this is. When the story of this year’s elections comes to be told in years to come, people will rightly ask: Well, what did the Lib Dem and Conservative coalition really do so wrong locally to be given such a whacking at the polls? They didn’t close any swimming pools down.
The explanation perhaps (I stress perhaps) lies in the reason they managed to prise Labour out of power in Camden in the first place. Remember that dramatic count in 2006 when Labour councillor after Labour councillor lost their seats – did that night represent a positive vote for the Lib Dems and in some areas the Conservatives? Or was it a vote against Labour, whose local members were unable to defend their own government’s reprehensible stance on Iraq? Labour voters in Camden who were relied upon deserted their traditional party of choice. The key question is whether those people aligned themselves closely with another party.
It certainly must have been hard at times for the Lib Dems to consolidate their vote in Kentish Town and Cantelowes, which had been Labour red for so long before. Especially when they were locked into a partnership with the Conservatives. They say someone needs to vote three times for a new party before it becomes a habit. Perhaps that’s why the party in the south of Camden were keen to renew the debate over the invasion of Iraq again during this campaign, prodding Frank Dobson over his voting record.
Yett with the threat of a Conservative government – unacceptable to Camden’s natural Labour vote – those self-inflicted wounds and divisions over Iraq seemed to be overlooked. And with Iraq, which was so so so divisive, no longer such a big issue on the doorstep, it seems many wavering Labour supporters were willing to revert to type – or at least make the effort to vote.
Nevertheless, the Lib Dems must be asking themselves where they actually went wrong in Camden over the last four years. The issue of council housing will always be difficult to reconcile but if you put that issue aside, what were the other decisions they took (that Labour wouldn’t have done in the same situation and under the same tough economic constraints) that made voters choose something else? If you know, there’s a comment box below.
The Lib Dems excel so much at by-elections but while thy would have wanted these council elections to have been fought like one big by-election, the wider political publicity made that not possible. This week’s disaster had hallmarks of the London elections in 2008 when the Lib Dems were all but written out of the narrative of the race for City Hall by the front page tug-of-war between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. The way those elections, two years ago, were presented, some voters might have felt they were somehow not allowed to vote for anybody else.
The danger of Thursday’s polls becoming a similar one-or-the-other decision time event – choose now: Gordon or Dave? – seemed to have been negated by Nick Clegg’s performance. The TV debates had got the party heard and the campaign nationally was impressive and well structured.
But the squeeze they feared came anyway, and the verdict was a brutal way to go.