Labour was always going to lose ground in this week’s elections, but the party’s truly dreadful last week will provide protection for Jeremy Corbyn from the difficult questions those results should have raised.
Elections are meant to be a test of a government’s popularity. But Thursday’s votes across the UK will have almost no long-term impact on the Conservatives, while causing real problems for Labour.
Before Naz Shah and Ken Livingstone snatched so much attention with their ill-considered comments, Mr Corbyn’s allies were already busily talking down Labour’s prospects.
Scotland is already a lost cause. Polls have consistently put the SNP at more than 50%, and analysts expect Labour to lose at least one-third of their vote, leaving the Conservatives breathing down their neck.
This result was perhaps inevitable, a year after the SNP’s near clean-sweep at the General Election — but Mr Corbyn was meant to reverse Labour’s Scottish decline. His supporters say it’s too soon to hold him to that, but to go backwards — perhaps even slip behind the Conservatives — would be a bitter moment for the party.
In Wales, there’ve been reports Mr Corbyn was asked to stay away from the campaign — true or not, Labour’s vote is likely to fall, but an increasingly split opposition, with UKIP carving up Assembly seats alongside Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and Lib Dems, means Labour control in Cardiff is a near certainty.
The most electorally vital results for Labour will come in England, where more than 2,000 council seats are up for grabs. Staged on a four-year cycle, these were last contested in 2012, soon after the “omnishambles” budget.
It was the best election result of Ed Miliband’s leadership — Labour got 38% of the vote, gaining hundreds of council seats. But that makes Labour’s task this week even harder — just to stand still, they need to come close to that 38% figure, when the party’s currently polling around 31%.
That suggests well over a-hundred seats could be lost, perhaps two-hundred.
It matters because if Labour is to have any prospect of winning in 2020 it needs to win dozens — probably around 60 — parliamentary seats in England. If Labour can’t make progress in England, it has no real prospect of winning power.
The one good news story will be in London, where Sadiq Khan will almost certainly be the new Mayor, despite his worries about the impact the anti-semitism row will have on Jewish voters.
London’s will be the last result, at the end of two days of largely bad news for Labour — and the temptation will be to point to City Hall and say “see, it could have been worse”.
But there are few other gains for Labour in London — the city is already a party stronghold, where it picked up 7 seats last year, while losing ground elsewhere.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters will point to the damaging rows of recent days to excuse poor election results — but this outcome was certain before Naz Shah’s Facebook posts came to light, or Ken Livingstone’s self-destructive tour of news studios.
The M-word — mandate — is already much in use to warn against leadership plots. But if Mr Corbyn’s allies suggest Labour need not worry about losing ground across the UK, their defence may go too far.
A government with a tiny majority has spent the last year acting as if it won a landslide, chiefly because the opposition’s self-obsession leaves it struggling to land a blow.
The Conservatives have even judged they can risk a civil war on Europe, worse than the one that crippled them in the 1990s, confident their rivals won’t be able to capitalise on it.
Labour needs to build a case that it’s a government in waiting, it needs to connect with lost supporters.
So far, there’s little evidence that’s happening.