James Forsyth James Forsyth

Politics: This referendum will destroy a party leader. But which one?

The next general election may seem a long way away.

The next general election may seem a long way away.

The next general election may seem a long way away. But for all three parties, the run-up to the local elections this month offers a chance to test their campaign strategies for 2015.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are using this period to remind voters of their achievements in office and reassure supporters that they remain distinct parties. But it is Labour that has by far the simplest and most effective message for 5 May: if you don’t like what the coalition is doing, vote for us.

After 13 years in government, Labour is relishing opposition. MPs who once dreaded having to knock on doors and defend Gordon Brown’s record are now eager to go out and canvass. Ed Miliband has developed a tan in the spring sunshine.

The challenge for Labour is not to let expectations get too high. The polls suggest huge gains for the party — up to a thousand seats — in the English council elections, as the Liberal Democrats pay the price for coalition. But Miliband’s aides are keen to stress that unseating Liberal Democrats is always difficult and that a 600-seat gain would be a good result. In Wales, Labour is on course to win an overall majority for the first time. The only cloud on its horizon is Scotland, where Alex Salmond looks likely to survive as first minister.

This needn’t bother Miliband much. The London papers have, sadly, stopped reporting Scottish politics. A poor result there will have little impact in Westminster.

Miliband is also the only party leader who can be relaxed about the main event on 5 May — the referendum on the alternative vote. He is supporting a change but no one will blame him if the result goes the other way.

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