The rumbling on the Tory backbenches has confirmed what was immediately obvious—Thursday last week was a very bad day for David Cameron.
The Lib Dems got slaughtered again. They have lost a thousand councillors in the past two years.
But that was no surprise.
The Lib Dems made their pact with the devil and are paying heavily for it.
They are damned as much for Shirley Williams’ rescue of the NHS bill as for their original somersault over student loans.
But their very weakness shackles them to the Tories.
Much more significant was the scale of the Labour advances—832 seats and 32 councils won on a 38 percent share of the vote.
Other Labour leaders did even better in mid-term council elections only to be defeated in the subsequent general election.
Nevertheless, a couple of months ago the smart money was on these elections marking curtains for Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Instead the dominant feature has turned out to be a significant advance for Labour and a matching reverse for the Tories.
Even the major exception to this pattern—Boris Johnson’s re-election as mayor of London—is a double-edged sword for Cameron.
Johnson polled well ahead of the Tories both in London and nationally.
This makes him the standard bearer for Thatcherite backbenchers frustrated with Cameron’s leadership.
Cameron will find himself subject to contradictory pressures.
On the one hand he'll be encouraged to tack rightwards, in response to his disgruntled base.
On the other, there's the need to prevent further inroads for Labour as a result.
Why did Labour do so well?
First there’s the impact of austerity—though it’s worth emphasising that the worst of the cuts lies ahead of us.
Second there’s what Miliband has dubbed the “omnishambles” of the past few weeks—the budget, government blundering over the tanker drivers’ dispute, and so on.
One shouldn’t ignore the impact of the News International scandal.
Commentators love to portray the Leveson inquiry as just of interest to the chattering classes, themselves included.
This forgets the deep hatred of the Sun among substantial numbers of workers who remember the 1980s—and not just in Liverpool.
Labour played this issue quite cleverly.
It manoeuvred Tory MPs on the parliamentary culture, media and sport committee into defending Rupert Murdoch from the charge of not being “fit” to run a big company.
Miliband also managed to force Scottish first minister Alex Salmond into a clumsy attempt to explain away his association with Murdoch.
This may help to explain why Labour kept control of Glasgow City Council, when even people on the far left were predicting the Scottish National Party would take it.
Beyond these specific factors, the local elections demonstrate the resilience of Labour.
Miliband’s leadership is cautious and equivocal and Labour-controlled councils are implementing cuts.
Yet the party remains the repository of working people’s hopes for some protection against the worst of the market.
Votes show a minority is looking left
Even as we see Labour holding up well in these elections, there are also signs of a willingness by a minority to look further leftwards.
The Greens came third in London with 8.5 percent of the list vote. Respect won five seats in Bradford, including that of the Labour council leader.
The overall performance of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was weak.
But individual socialist candidates, headed by Michael Lavalette in Preston, performed much more strongly.
Further rightwards we see the same pattern. Hard right Ukip gathered 13 percent of the vote in the seats where it stood.
This is a less developed version of what is happening elsewhere in Europe. Crisis and austerity are squeezing the centre and encouraging a polarisation to both the left and the right.
So simultaneously, we see Labour reviving and the space to its left growing.
The challenge is to fill this space.
Figure it out
50 percent of Lib Dem seats annihilated
39 percent of overall vote won by Labour
32 councils gained by Labour
12 Tory councils lost
5 seats in Bradford council won by Respect