Comment: All three leaders face headaches after May 3rd

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The local election and referendum results present both challenges and opportunities for the leaders of Britain's three parties.

They can comfort themselves with the fact that votes cast in local elections don't necessarily reflect how the electorate will behave in national elections. A lot can happen in the next three years, after all.

But these results are further bad news for the coalition, helping to reinforce the media narrative of a government on the slide. The fact that so many cities rejected the referendum on local mayors also suggests that Cameron's agenda is floundering. He can dress it up as a triumph for local democracy and public choice as much as he likes, but it's still a direct rejection of a plan he supported.

Various government ministers and MPs have appeared on TV in the last three days to suggest that the result represented a failure of their ability to get their message across rather than a rejection of their message per-se.

In reality it's a stark statement that not only do people still dislike austerity, but they no longer believe that it's working. The trouble is Cameron and Osborne would find it very difficult now to change course with regards to their economic policy. They've staked far too much on austerity. As they've repeatedly assured us: "There is no Plan B."

Changing tack now would also mean admitting that Labour might have been right, which would be an incredibly bitter pill to swallow.

Backbenchers and some ministers have been pressing Cameron to move to the right and drop plans for gay marriage and Lords reform. However this is unlikely as well, as Cameron doesn't want to fall into the trap of being led by his party as opposed to leading it; just look at what happened to John Major.

Any move further to the right would also risk splitting the coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Ruling as a minority government probably wouldn't work and facing an election right now would be suicidal. He's stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. The only thing he can do is keep hoping that the economy turns around in time for him and his party to reap the electoral benefits.

Clegg and co keep repeating the increasingly tired line that they didn't have any alternative but to go into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and that it was the grown-up thing to do. However, as they'll probably discover at the next election, voters want to know what you did for them yesterday, not five years ago.

If the Conservatives don't want to face an election right now then that goes double for Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats now have less than 3,000 councillors and Brian Paddick came fourth in the London mayoral contest.

The grassroots have been remarkably patient so far. I can't imagine how much longer they'll stand-by while the party collapses around them. Politicians are often accused of wishful thinking, but Clegg's alleged belief that the millions of left-wing voters that have deserted them since 2010 will come flooding back in 2015 is bordering on delusion. If I was a Lib Dem MP in a marginal seat I'd start to feel pretty nervous right about now.

The result has given Labour fresh momentum and Ed Miliband a breathing space. He shouldn't have to face any questions about his leadership abilities from the media for at least a few months now. Even Ken Livingstone's loss in London can be put down to the ‘Boris' factor, something that seems immune to the usual political trends and patterns. Miliband does need to capitalise on this success though, before this momentum ebbs away. Otherwise the election results could be interpreted as more a vote against the Conservatives than a vote for Labour.

So far, perhaps necessarily so, Labour have been very vague about their own policies. However it's just not enough anymore to be against the Conservatives' plans. You have to give people a viable substitute. In the next 12 months they need to start being clearer about what they'd do if they were elected. They also need to convince the public that they can turn the economy around even if the eurozone continues to collapse. If they can do this then Labour will really begin to look like a viable electoral alternative.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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