The run-up to local elections is always characterised by a playing down of expectations: as Ed Miliband has proved this week.
Miliband claimed Labour was now the party for “Middle Britain” last week at the launch of Labour’s campaign in Birmingham, a city the party wants to win back from a joint Tory/LibDem administration.
His aides say that 300 to 350 seats won would count as a victory on May 3, but this seems to be far lower than they might reasonably expect.
After all most of these seats were last fought in 2008 when Gordon Brown was already hugely unpopular, trailing behind the Tories by about 17 points in the polls.
Tom Watson gave an interview a while ago to PoliticsHome where he admitted that expectations management was key to the headlines after the results in May.
“We won the election last year but lost the media war, in the sense that we won 850 seats – which, given that was 12 months after the most damaging general election defeat in our history, was frankly an electoral miracle. But it was written up as a victory for the Conservatives,” Labour’s deputy chairman and campaign co-ordinator told Paul Waugh.
“There were nearly 9,000 seats up for grabs last year; this year there are nearly 2,500. The truth is I don’t know how many seats we are going to win. But I think a realistic, stretching challenge will be 350 seat gains.”
Reading between the lines, that implies that Watson’s own figure of 350 is deliberately low.
The Tories say that 700 seats is a more realistic figure for Labour gains, and cite Rawlings & Thrasher (the psephological gurus) for having come up with that higher number. (Although I can’t find that original research). One senior Tory MP told me the 350 target was “just ludicrously low”.
There’s no doubt though that Labour will be most closely watched in London and Glasgow: if the party fails to win back the former and loses the latter – during a period of deep public sector cuts – it will be a night of red ink for Miliband. Not least given the Bradford West shock byelection defeat of a fortnight ago.
Holding Glasgow and a surprise win for Ken Livingstone would – by contrast – heap the pressure on David Cameron and the Tories.
Meanwhile Jane Merrick has done an excellent story in the Independent on Sunday suggesting that the Lib Dems are fielding far fewer candidates than the other parties: strikingly it is unable to put up a full slate for Liverpool, where it used to control the council. The party does not deny the IoS statistics, merely pointing to three years of losses from a high point of 4,200 seats (about a fifth of the total) in 2008.
Curiously the Lib Dems even lost about 200 seats on the day of the general election, their high water mark in terms of national polling support.