Until a month ago Ed Miliband may have envisaged a triumphant victory parade down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, instead his walkabout was in the more humble environs of Gravesend.
“South, north, east and west, Labour is coming back”, the Labour leader told an audience of supporters in the Kent town, one of 24 English councils by Friday afternoon that had returned to the party’s control.
Labour mopped up many seats in northern towns that had been held by the Liberal Democrats but which – on a historic basis – are natural Labour territory. When it came to tougher opposition, such as the Tories in southern England and the SNP in Scotland, Mr Miliband’s party failed to put up a strong enough fight.
The Holyrood result in particular made it hard for the party to claim that Mr Miliband’s leadership had ended the week in a stronger position than before.
At this point in the electoral cycle, you would have expected the main opposition party to have mounted a more convincing comeback, given the low level from which it was fighting.
Instead, by late afternoon it had made gains of only 648 in the English council elections – compared with experts’ predictions of more than 1,000 – which mean that its local presence is still dwarfed by the Tories. Most of Labour’s gains were against the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives, wresting control of Sheffield, Newcastle, Bolton, Stoke, Telford and Hull.
In Labour-Tory face-offs in the south, victory in Gravesend was offset by failure to make headway in Southampton, Swindon and Dartford.
William Hague, as leader of the Tories in 1999, made gains of more than 1,300 seats only to go on to general election defeat two years later. Mr Miliband’s performance, the foreign secretary noted, was even less impressive.
The share of the total vote, at 37 per cent, was only two percentage points ahead of the Tories at 35 per cent – hardly a resounding success. “It’s really not very good at all,” said one former minister.
In recent opinion polls Labour had enjoyed a significantly larger lead over its main rival. And its politicians had hoped to make more of an impact by focusing on the unpopular government’s cuts programme.
The so-so result could add to the sense in some parts of Labour that Mr Miliband, while a competent party chief, lacks the essential “star quality” required of a future world leader.
The brightest spot was Wales where it only narrowly failed to secure its first ever majority in Cardiff Bay. Peter Hain, former Welsh secretary, said it was Labour’s best-ever performance in the principality, picking up 30 out of 60 seats in the assembly.