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Is Ed now edging closer to No 10?

Byline: Barry GIBSON

HANDS up those who remember the Socialist Labour Party? Who has heard of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or indeed Trade Unionists and Socialists Against the Cuts? These groups are household names only in strange households where politics is the main topic of conversation around the dinner table.

Electorally speaking, the far left is as relevant as the Monster Raving Loony Party, struggling to persuade more than a few dozen people in any council ward to back its blueprint to overthrow capitalism. There have been exceptions - Jackie Grunsell winning a Kirklees Council seat in 2006 on the back of anger at the loss of maternity services in Huddersfield being a fine example.

But, generally, the far left has a woeful record at the polls in England, bumping around in that grey area between also-ran and laughing stock.

This irrelevance allowed New Labour to give us 13 years of watered-down Thatcherism without ever having to worry about its left flank.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown didn't lie awake at night worrying about some upstart socialist group taking council seats off them in Doncaster or Durham. No such comfort for David Cameron, who may now be having sleepless nights about the voting intentions of the people of Basildon and Billericay.

As predicted in this column last week, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) did very well in Thursday's local elections, increasing its number of councillors from eight to 147.

While it's true that the Europhobes are taking votes from all three mainstream parties, a quick look at the electoral map shows that the Conservatives are suffering the most. In the five most northerly councils to hold elections last week, UKIP won just two seats. The party actually lost its only representative on Nottinghamshire County Council as the East Midland authority swung from blue to red.

UKIP's stronghold starts in Tory Lincolnshire - where the party won an astounding 16 seats on Thursday - and continues south down the eastern side of England. Conservative heartland, in other words.

The Tories - proud recipients of just 36% of the vote in the last general election in the midst of an economic crisis - must be wondering where their path to victory in 2015 has gone.

Twenty seats short of a majority and in bed with the Lib Dems, the Conservatives must have hoped that a recovering economy would take them over the line at the next general election without having to complicate things by pandering to their own base.

But now Nigel Farage and his tweedy band of merry men have appeared over the horizon, banging on about gay marriage, grammar schools and, of course, Johnny Foreigner. Interesting hobby horses if you're on the right of British politics, but none of them is ever going to ride to victory in the General Election Stakes.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is a man who has the luxury of having his side of the English political spectrum to himself. Ed Miliband is surely the most underwhelming Prime Minister-in-waiting in British history, not least because most people haven't realised how close he is to standing outside 10 Downing Street in May 2015 grinning his big Gromit grin.

Labour picked up nearly 300 seats in Thursday's council elections. In one sense it was an underwhelming result for an opposition party in the middle of an economic crisis - especially when you remember that the last time these councils were contested in 2009 Labour was led by Gordon Brown at the depth of his unpopularity. But look closer and you'll see that the party is doing what it needs to do to get back into power in 2015. The excruciating unfairness of the British electoral system means that it doesn't matter a jot how unpopular Labour is in areas which the party is never going to win.

Take Norfolk as an example. Last week Labour took 14 of the 84 seats in the East Anglian county. Vast swathes of the area remained Tory blue despite the Government's troubles.

So Labour can't win in the rural South? So what? What does matter in Norfolk is that Labour picked up six seats in Norwich - home to two marginal Parliamentary constituencies. Across England it was the same story last Thursday - Labour did well where it needs to do well if it's going to win in 2015.

A few dozen Tory-Labour marginals will decide the next general election, as they decide all general elections.

Last week's results suggest UKIP will take a hefty chunk out of the Conservative vote in these seats in 2015.

But there will be no-one on the left to take a similar-sized bite out of Labour's support in these few crucial constituencies. If Mr Miliband does make it to Downing Street in 2015, he should buy Mr Farage a drink.


| VOTE-SPLITTER: Should Labour leader Ed Miliband (above) be buying UKIP leader Nigel Farage (below) a drink.
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Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:May 8, 2013
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