Few Votes, Fewer Winners

In the aftermath of Thursday's elections, Politeia Director Sheila Lawlor argues that local government is the loser.

 

As the council election results sink in, there’s no doubt about the thumbs down to the ruling parties, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Although all the votes aren’t yet counted, the picture is of a fall in vote share in England, with the Conservatives at 31 per cent (36 per cent nationally in the 2010 general election); and the Liberal Democrats at 16 per cent (23 per cent nationally in 2010).  Labour by contrast has gained significantly and leads with a 38 per cent share (29 per cent nationally in 2010).

However, if I were Ed Milliband, Labour’s leader, I’d be wary of any premature sense of triumph or of suggesting ‘my’ policies were better  than ‘theirs’.  It’s not clear that voters are ‘against’ the cuts for the country or would wish to return to the destructive spending spree of Labour’s deficit and debt years, though they may share (as do many Conservatives) worry at the changes in the tax system to the detriment of charities, pensioners and many hard-pressed parents. And though Labour's alternatives may not be so attractive, the party can capitalise on the sense that the ruling classes have no idea how much difference a few hundred pounds a year makes to most people who face pay cuts or job losses or how the tax on a hot pasty is more than a symbol to the millions for whom that has become the new fish and chips.

In fact it's not so much the policies that are the problem, but the absence of a clear lead irrespective of what the focus groups say.

First, voters want clear policy and a direct lead, even if they don’t agree. In London, for instance, Boris Johnson, who has made no secret of his Conservative prescription for success - one of lower tax, less Europe, and a full scale assault on both the backroom politics of the London Assembly and the creaking transport system - is leading from the front. We also hear of Labour voters in London abandoned their party on this occasion to vote for Boris. Elsewhere, other parties are doing well, securing 14 per cent of the vote, and UKIP, which many Conservatives see as a forbidden but desirable fruit, is doing dramatically well in the seats where it fields candidates. This is not just an English message but a wind of change blowing across the continent of Europe.

Second, local government seems to be an irrelevance to the voters.  The estimated turn out, of those who bothered to vote this year, is 32 per cent, at its lowest since 2000. So, if I were the Coalition, I’d think again before giving more powers to those who rule the town and county halls, often at the behest of Whitehall. One third of the  electorate turning out to vote is a very strong message: localism is not democracy!