May 06, 2006

Did these elections matter

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 in 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.

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 in 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.

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 taxes 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 and (?1) Conservative one with one ward not declared as there was some kind of a clerical error and the High Court will decide. 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 only 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. Still, 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, mounted.

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 once again outmanoeuvred

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.

Posted by Helen Szamuely at May 6, 2006 03:36 PM
Comments

I just finished Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s The Strange Death of Tory England, where he made a few points that seem germane to this election. One is voters’ growing apathy and disgust with politics in general. As Wheatcroft noted, the voters didn’t return Labour to power until they felt that putting them there wouldn’t make much difference. And their apathy was reflected in declining turnout; Blair’s 2001 re-election “landslide” was smaller numerically than the losing vote won by Labour under Neil Kinnock in 1992. I’m guessing much of the Conservative surge in these most recent elections was a protest vote against Labour that had almost nothing to do with supporting the Tories.

All of which makes BNP’s success particularly disturbing. I’m surprised the Tories still haven’t resolved their Europhile/Europhobe split (so far as I know), and also surprised that UKIP wasn’t able to capitalize on that more effectively. But BNP seems to have capitalized on the inability of the major parties to present either platforms or speakers that can win the support of the electorate. Or so it looks from the outside.

Posted by: utron at May 11, 2006 09:49 AM

I rather like this passage:

The expansive space could not be controlled by traditional means because the people moving across it would not submit to such control. This relentless mobility was the paramount expression of popular sovereignty in America, and it expressed more than traditional "customs in common." Popular constitutionalism, which was performed in petitions, protests, parades, and mobbing, persisted after the Revolution and connected white Americans to their British past. But overland emigration, which only with nationalist hindsight can be called internal migration, had always distinguished North American constitutional culture. That movement, which expressed radical notions of liberty and property, infuriated the British imperial agents while also making some of them rich from land speculation.

Looking forward into the 21st century, as we expand into space (Moon, Mars and beyond) it may prove necessary to infuriate D.C. Beltway imperial agents if we wish to spread notions of freedom and property rights NOT derived from a political soveriegn.

Posted by: Bill White at May 16, 2006 09:10 AM

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Posted by: bcxbgcbc at April 6, 2007 09:50 AM
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