Beauty Contests

Ross McKibbin on the local elections

In last week’s local elections only 32 per cent of the registered electorate voted – a striking measure of how unimportant local government is to most people and a reasonable judgment on the authority of municipal government. The powers of the local state have been inexorably weakened over the last century: a process only speeded up in the 1980s. Despite the importance of local government to the Lib Dems the present government has further accelerated it. Furthermore, 32 per cent is a small and unreliable sample on which to make judgements about national politics. But here goes.

Both major parties did slightly worse than current opinion polls suggested they would – but not that much worse. The Lib Dems, with 16 per cent of the vote, did somewhat better. That, however, did not much help them overall. Their vote held up against the Conservatives, but against Labour it almost collapsed. In much of the north of England, especially the cities, the Lib Dems were Labour’s major rival. That remains the case, but they are now a feeble rival. In Scotland they did very badly. We must assume that the SNP will absorb much of the Lib Dems' traditional Scottish vote.

The Conservatives did badly, but it seems unlikely that they lost much to Labour. They lost more to UKIP and indifference. But the idea that they can be rescued by even more right-wing policies is fanciful. The real problem is the policies that the party is at present following. Social liberalism (or authoritarianism) cannot compensate for economic policies which are simply mistaken. Or for evidence that inexperienced ministers are not up to the job. Labour did well, even outside its heartlands, but not spectacularly well. Its lead is fragile and could easily disappear over the next three years. Nevertheless, it should take the pressure off Ed Miliband for a while, though probably not for long. The press will continue its discreditable attacks on him while the Blairites will also continue to whisper in his ears Blairite ‘truths’. He should ignore them. His instincts are not bad and he should stick to them. But the lack of self-confidence is still there; the fear of the ‘markets’; the desire to reassure the rich and powerful. I doubt that these election results will make much difference to this.

As expected, the small part of the electorate that cares mostly voted against elected mayors. There is something to be said both for and against but given the limited powers even elected mayors are to have, mayoral elections would be merely beauty contests – as they now are in London where a mayor who, as his main opponent said, has done virtually nothing, seemed in some way jollier than Livingstone, who did rather a lot. But Livingstone looked and sounded shop-worn. A less compromised candidate almost certainly would have beaten Johnson. A missed opportunity. On the other hand, if Livingstone wanted the candidacy the Labour party was in no position to deny him.

Labour did remarkably in Wales (where it is an effective government and electoral machine) and surprisingly well, so we are told, in Scotland. In fact, the Scottish result was fairly predictable. The SNP vote is shaky and uncommitted, particularly in Southern and Central Scotland where Labour still looks entrenched. It performed impressively in by-elections during the 2005 parliament but lost those gains in the 2010 general election, in which Labour did astonishingly well. Something now largely forgotten. Salmond’s wooing of Murdoch presumably did not help.