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  • Did these elections matter?

    Posted by Helen on May 6th, 2006 (All posts by )

    On a most obvious level local elections do not matter in Britain. Local councils have long ago lost many of their powers; most of their money comes from central government, which decides which council gets the most funds and practices redistribution of wealth between them; legislation is made in Westminster (or Edinburgh or Cardiff) at best but much more likely in Brussels. Recycling, so beloved by David Cameron (though not much discussed by Tories at the local level) is an EU competence as are all environmental issues, and the decisions taken locally are very limited.

    So, really, who sits on the local council is of little interest or importance to the people of Britain. This is reflected in the turn-out: uniformly low. This year it was 36 per cent on average, a couple of points down from 2004, though there were anomalies, as I shall point out later.

    Local elections can be used to give an unpopular government a bloody nose but this does not necessarily translate itself into a subsequent general election victory. Both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith led the Conservative Party to superlative results in the local elections. Hague then proceeded to lose spectacularly in the general and IDS was knifed by his own party five months after his success.

    Bearing all that in mind, it is fair to point out that the Labour government was given a spectacular bloody nose, just as everyone expected. They lost 319 seats and control of 18 councils. The Conservatives won 316 seats and gained control of 11 councils, some rather unexpected.

    On a most obvious level local elections do not matter in Britain. Local councils have long ago lost many of their powers; most of their money comes from central government, which decides which council gets the most funds and practices redistribution of wealth between them; legislation is made in Westminster (or Edinburgh or Cardiff) at best but much more likely in Brussels. Recycling, so beloved by David Cameron (though not much discussed by Tories at the local level) is an EU competence as are all environmental issues, and the decisions taken locally are very limited.

    So, really, who sits on the local council is of little interest or importance to the people of Britain. This is reflected in the turn-out: uniformly low. This year it was 36 per cent on average, a couple of points down from 2004, though there were anomalies, as I shall point out later.

    Local elections can be used to give an unpopular government a bloody nose but this does not necessarily translate itself into a subsequent general election victory. Both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith led the Conservative Party to superlative results in the local elections. Hague then proceeded to lose spectacularly in the general and IDS was knifed by his own party five months after his success.

    Bearing all that in mind, it is fair to point out that the Labour government was given a spectacular bloody nose, just as everyone expected. They lost 319 seats and control of 18 councils. The Conservatives won 316 seats and gained control of 11 councils, some rather unexpected.

    London has gone blue in a way it has not been for a long time, if ever. One contributory factor has been the role of the Mayor Ken Livingstone, his antics, his ultra-left agenda, the financial burden he continues to impose on the inhabitants and businesses of London. Most boroughs managed to keep the increase in local taxation down (though most of these are already inordinately high) but the Greater London precept went up by a whopping 13 per cent, having gone up by a similar proportion last year. This is supposed to finance the Olympic construction, but the 2012 Games are perceived as yet another of Ken’s attempts at self-aggrandizement.

    My own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham has slipped into Conservative control for the first time since 1968 and even the normally rock-solid Labour ward I live in now has a Conservative councillor. Being just across the tracks from Cameron’s Kensington and Chelsea, one could argue that this is the sort of borough in which his vacuous charm and media-driven agenda are likely to be appreciated.

    However, I was told by one of the Tory councillors some months ago that they had high hopes of winning the Council and of doing extremely well across London. In fact, the local campaign ignored Cameron and his fatuous comments about voting blue to go green. The leaflets did not carry his picture – usually de rigeur in Conservative political literature – and the main issue was tax cuts, not an official Conservative policy. This, I suspect, was replicated in other boroughs. The best one can say about the Cameron factor is that it did not impede Conservative success.

    The success has been very uneven, with little headway being made in the northern cities. In fact, the famous victory is not so astonishing if you consider that we are in the third term of a highly unpopular government, that went into something approaching a melt-down in the weeks before the election.

    Surprisingly for some people, the Liberal-Democrats have not done well at all. Overall, they gained 2 seats and control over one council. UKIP has managed to throw away all the advantages they might have gained from the present political situation and the publicity they were presented with by Cameron in his rather silly but calculated outburst against them. They won a single seat in Hartlepool. The Greens have gained 20 seats and are suitably jubilant, though this is nowhere near their glory days.

    The big story, of course, has been the BNP (British National Party). They had predicted that there would be 30 seats and there were 27 at the end of the count. There would have been more if the three main parties had not created virtual alliances in some northern cities to keep the outsiders out.

    In Barking and Dagenham, where not only Livingstone but Gordon Brown had campaigned, there are now 11 BNP councillors. As against that, neighbouring Newham has 3 Respect councillors (all in one ward rather tellingly) and Tower Hamlets, just beyond it, has 11 Respect seats. There is good evidence that the wards that elected BNP and Conservatives in the East London boroughs had a higher turn-out than average. The vote-casting was very deliberate.

    So far we have not heard those expected calls for the banning of the BNP. With this many seats and such a high proportion of the votes in other places (around 27 per cent), even the BBC and the political establishment in general must realize that calling for the party’s ban would only add fat to the fire.

    On the other hand, the ridiculous re-trial of their leader Nick Griffin and his friend for various comments they made at a private function, is still scheduled. In the first trial they were acquitted on two charges and the jury could not agree on the other two. The re-trial on the latter may well go the same way.

    In the meantime, the BNP made much in their election literature of the demonstrations outside the Danish embassy in March and of the demands for the beheading of cartoonists and journalists, the threats of a new holocaust and so on. Only now have two people been charged with incitement to violence. In fact, the police was content to leave well alone and started arresting participants solely because of the widespread outrage in the country.

    There is no question about it, unless the various issues and growing grievances that drove people to vote BNP are addressed, the party will grow in strength. The sort of shrill attacks on it we have seen from all the main parties are unlikely to harm them – to the contrary, their popularity will increase.

    Another week, and the elections will be forgotten. Blair’s astonishingly swift cabinet massacre will remain. It was known that there would be a wide-ranging reshuffle immediately after the local elections but most of us expected a leisurely change-over during the week-end, not an immediate axe-wielding on Friday morning.

    Some of the changes were expected. Charles Clarke, as the man at the heart of the biggest scandal, that of the absconding would be deportee criminals, went to the backbenches.

    John Prescott was deprived of all his departmental responsibilities but left with his position of Deputy Prime Minister, huge salary, two grace-and-favour residences, chauffeur-driven jaguar and many other perks. As Prescott was a corrosively destructive force in politics, this is all to the good, though the evil he has done so far will, undoubtedly live after him. However, Ruth Kelly, his successor in the department, will not have the clout to carry through all the plans.

    Given that Prescott is supposed to have enough support in the Labour Party to make it impossible for Blair to get rid of him, it is quite clever to put him in a position where he becomes the most hated and despised man in the country. As the Sun headline said this morning: “Now we are all screwed by Prescott”. The Daily Express had his grinning visage with the words: “No wonder he looks smug.”

    Interestingly, Blair used the opportunity to get rid of Jack Straw, one of the few ministers who had kept out of trouble in the last few weeks. His successor, the charmless and talentless Margaret Beckett has been a failure in every one of her positions. Presumably, Blair will continue to be in charge of foreign policy and her role will be to take the flak when things go wrong. This will make a nice change as she has made a habit in her previous job, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of being absent whenever problems, such as the foot-and-mouth epidemic, mount.

    The one to watch is John Reid, the new Home Secretary. For some time now, as it became more and more clear that Blair was very reluctant to hand over to Gordon Brown, the name that kept cropping up in reply to the question of who else is there, has been Reid’s. His promotion to one of the great offices of state is, therefore, very significant.

    Of course, Home Secretaries are rarely successful and the last two, Blunkett and Clarke, retired to the backbenches under thunderous clouds. But if Blair and Reid move fast, Brown may well find himself circumvented.

    There are many problems with Brown, not least the fact that he is a loser electorally. His failure in Dumfermline, the constituency he lives in, was spectacular a couple of months ago. His campaign in East London has not helped and may well have contributed to the disaster. Despite media assertions about his premiership, many in the Labour Party know that he could not win an egg-and-spoon race.

    And when the dust dies down, what shall we see? Blair still in power and not in a hurry to leave; a Labour Party ever less sure of itself with ever less support in the country; a Conservative Party still looking for a role with a leader about whom many remain doubtful; and a country where the people’s disenchantment with the political establishment has reached monumental proportions.

    Cross-posted from Albion’s Seedlings

     

    2 Responses to “Did these elections matter?”

    1. Lex Says:

      Barone on the UK local elections.

      He is nicer to Blair than Helen is. Ha.

    2. Helen Says:

      There’s a surprise. But then, I am nicer about Blair than I am about Brown. So, heh again!