Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Friday, 2 May 2008 12:15 UK

Martha Kearney's election verdict

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

Gordon Brown
Mr Brown : Will there be a fundamental change of approach?

However much Labour politicians may have been fearing this result, there is a big difference when the actual results come through.

Councils falling in their own areas, local party activists losing their seats, the sight of gloating opponents must all drive home the impermanence of political power.

BBC predictions put Labour in third position at 24%, the Liberal Democrats on 25% and the Conservatives on 44% - proof that their big opinion poll leads are based on real voter sentiment.

It does seem that those tectonic plates so beloved by John Prescott may be shifting.

Real fear

Labour politicians on the airwaves are acknowledging the defeats but blaming the losses on the usual midterm blues that incumbent governments face.

However, these losses in council seats are more significant than the normal parliamentary by-election defeats that a government can expect.

When the Conservatives lost disastrously in local government elections in the 1990s, they lost more than control of their councils.

They lost their activist base, the people who would go out and campaign during general election campaigns. That seriously undermined the Tories nationally and that must now be a real fear for Labour too.

Looking at individual results Labour must be worried too about the losses seen in areas of traditional support. In Wales Rhodri Morgan acknowledged that the tide was beginning to turn against Labour.

It does seem that the party's unpopularity nationally had a deep impact, in particular the policy of abolishing the ten pence tax band which caused so many Labour MPs to threaten a revolt.

Pledge to listen

Gordon Brown acknowledged this week the policy had been a mistake and promised to listen in the future. That hasn't been his strongest suit in the past.

One former minister told me that he has been writing to the Treasury for over a year about the ten pence tax band and had been told that no one would lose out.

So will there be a fundamental change of approach by Gordon Brown? On the next threatened revolt over the extension of 42 day detention without charge, there was no sign of a listening government.

David Cameron at PMQs
Mr Brown described Mr Cameron as a 'shallow salesman' this week

At Prime Minister's Questions this week Gordon Brown promised to press ahead with the policy which will undoubtedly cause him problems when the vote comes in June.

No sign of a softer listening Gordon in later exchanges either when he bandied insults like Calamity Clegg or calling David Cameron "a shallow salesman".

There wasn't much sign of listening either when he was interviewed by Nicky Campbell on Five Live. Asked what was his first thought on waking up, the Prime Minister replied with a long list which included worries about home owners and shared equity schemes.

What a barrage, teased Campbell, Tony Blair would just have said he'd have liked a cup of coffee. But perhaps a transformation in personal style would seem inauthentic (remember his apparent love of the Arctic Monkeys?)

Leadership questions

There will be even greater pressure on Gordon Brown now to show a clear direction for the government.

Blairite politicians will urge greater pace on public service reforms. Others will attack the Number Ten operation.

This week for example, a last minute decision to veto a rise in prisoners' pay could be seen as micromanagement to avoid damaging headlines. The head of the Prison Governors' Association signalled his unhappiness with the decision on Wednesday's World At One.

There will of course be questions about his leadership but the idea of a challenge to that great clunking fist by any serious contender seems farfetched.

But the temptation to reach for eye-catching initiatives should be resisted. Remember the last relaunch in the New Year? Many of those ideas didn't stand up to greater scrutiny.

Conservative victory?

So given Labour's deep-rooted problems, can the Conservatives assume that a general election victory is in the bag? That was a question I asked one of David Cameron's inner circle this week.

Certainly not, he replied, for three reasons. There is the electoral arithmetic which makes it harder for the Tories to win an overall majority.

Secondly, while the government is hugely unpopular, people aren't yet convinced by the Conservatives, that David Cameron hasn't given a clear enough idea of what he would do in power.

Thirdly, politics can be volatile. Perhaps the story would be changing in six months to a Labour fightback.

Interestingly, that idea was reflected in the victory message put out by David Cameron after these election results. He said the victory wasn't just on the back of a failing Labour government; the Conservatives would make the changes people wanted to see in schools and hospitals.

The general election may not be until 2010 but the fight is on.




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