What Went Wrong with Local Elections?
Redmond, Robert S., Contemporary Review
MY barber was emphatic. He had voted Labour (or was it Liberal Democrat? he was not quite sure) in the June election for the European Parliament. He had, he said, registered a protest against the idea of VAT on his electricity and gas bills. Not an issue at that election? So what? The Conservative Party had introduced the tax and he had said what he thought. He added that he had voted Lib/Dem in the local elections in May. He was sure about that. He accepted that he now had an MEP with whom he disagreed strongly about many things and a local councillor who is 'useless' but he has told John Major something.
What about the way John Major had vetoed the election of M. Dehaene? Oh! That was right. It was time someone stood up for Britain. Did he think his MEP would agree? He supposed not.
This kind of thing is a symptom of a malaise which has been creeping up on Britain for years, but with the European Parliament, it could become deeply serious to the point where it undermines our political system. It is too much to ask the political parties to help. They are too concerned to score points with an eye on the next General Election.
Looking back over the post-war years, it is clear the parties started the rot. They now show every sign of making things worse by using European as well as Local elections as referenda on national government. This is not a tirade against Labour and Liberal/Democrats. Does anyone suggest that if the Conservative Party were in opposition next time, they would concentrate on European issues to the exclusion of all else?
This argument does not apply to Parliamentary By-elections. They are directly concerned with Westminster politics. It is fair for people to express a view about the policies being followed by the Government of the day even if they vote differently at subsequent General Elections. In any case, people think they can have their fun. They know that one by-election is unlikely to change a government.
The danger comes from the way parties have exploited local elections for their national ends and, consequently, from the way the media has reacted. Politicians love to blame the press, television and radio, but seldom seem to accept that they usually make the bullets for journalists to fire at them.
Party politics have been part of the local government scene in our big cities since time immemorial. Anyone who lived in Liverpool before the war can recall the bitter political fights with strong sectarian aspects which amused outsiders. Just after the war, as a young trainee Conservative Agent, I was given the task of securing the nomination of a Tory candidate for one of the hopeless wards of the old Scotland Constituency. All I needed were ten signatures on the paper, but how could I find them? I began by asking a shopkeeper to help and he ran his finger down the electoral register. 'Try there, he might help.' 'He's no good, he's Papist.' 'You can ask him . . .'. That is how I found enough people to sign. It was, in fact, the sectarian divide which kept Liverpool solidly under Conservative control. On the Council were Conservatives in the majority, supported by the official Protestant Party, opposed by Labour who had allies in the Centre Party -- Irish Nationalists before 1922.
That sectarian/political ethos was almost peculiar to Liverpool, but other cities and county boroughs had political party control which, unlike Liverpool, changed with the swing of the pendulum. The subject did not hit the headlines and party gains and losses were of more interest to local papers than the nationals. There was, in any case, no widespread involvement by parties and in suburban and rural areas it was not so easy to spot a national trend.
In those places, people become councillors without ever thinking of party affiliation. If anyone asked, they would say that politics had no place in their councils or committees. They usually stood for election because they thought they might do a useful job. After the war, however, the Labour Party began to contest these wards. Their constant cry was that the 'so-called Independents' were nothing but Tories in disguise and they used their organisation to gain headway. As a result, A-political people dropped out and Conservatives saw no alternative but to use their organisation in the same way. It was not long before the Liberal Party came into the picture and virtually all councils have become political battlegrounds. Even so, at first, it was difficult for the media to make much of results and turn them into trends.
The hype round local elections was really sparked by Lord Woolton, Chairman of the Conservative Party in 1947. Until then, while local elections may have got a mention in newspapers, the BBC hardly noticed them and serious trends were never detected. There had, however, been a crop of Parliamentary By-Elections in safe Labour seats. Very often, due to lack of attention to constituency boundaries, Labour majorities sometimes looked small and vulnerable when they were not. No one, in those days, had thought of percentages or psephological calculations with swingometers. Some Labour majorities of a few thousand may have needed a 15 per cent swing for the seat to change hands, but the electorate were not told of such technicalities. Labour made great play that they never lost a seat. This, they said, showed they had strong popular backing.
Lord Woolton was fed up, but saw an opportunity to blow the claim sky-high. On polling day in the Borough elections of 1947 every Conservative constituency agent was required to collect the results for his area and report all gains and losses to Central Office immediately after votes were counted. A consolidated report was then handed out to the media. This ensured banner headlines next morning reporting a national landslide against Labour.
It was remarkable that even active Tories had been so mesmerised by the 'invulnerability' of the Labour Government that they doubted what was said. So did the BBC. In those days 'Auntie' was strictly neutral and careful to avoid accusations to the contrary. It ran its own check which, over a period of two days, confirmed the figures. Lord Woolton had secured a most remarkable scoop. The news transformed Tory morale and probably did more than anything else to put heart into the Party when it needed it.
From then on the media began to watch the polls and, today, the dreaded swingometers come out every year. The die had been cast. As a result of what was started by Lord Woolton, we have a referendum on the national government every spring. What is more, people are now voting in both local and European elections on irrelevant issues. Because Virginia Bottomley announces a closure of an ancient hospital ward or because the Chancellor imposes a new tax, Joe Bloggs who has been an excellent councillor using his local knowledge and experience, loses his seat to someone quite useless. This has been going on and getting worse for more than 40 years, affecting the different parties in turn. Moreover good people without the stomach for the political cockpit, stay away.
No one suggests that Lord Woolton was wrong to do what he did or that he is entirely to blame for all that has followed. Surely, someone else would eventually have done something similar with the same result.
To complicate things, the destruction of the Urban and Rural District Councils in 1973, replaced by bigger Districts, has put the last nail in the coffin of the A-political councillors. Local elections cost too much for individuals to foot the bill which is now paid from party funds.
It is regrettable that some voters at Local Elections can be seen in polling booths studying the ballot papers carefully to be sure which party they are supporting. They do not read the literature. Perhaps worse, far too many stay at home because they cannot see any importance in going to the polling place at all. Whereas a 75 or 80 per cent turnout at a General Election is normal, 50 per cent at a Local is considered good and, last June, some areas were proud of reaching a 37 per cent interest in Europe.
Accept it or not, one can understand the argument that the constitution of councils is now of little importance. More serious is an even stronger belief that the European Parliament is a talking shop without teeth. Those who think so fail to understand how it is acquiring increasing power, but one cannot blame them. How many candidates really tried in June to get a proper message across? How much television time was devoted to real issues as opposed to things like domestic taxation? If Labour and Liberal/Democrat MEPs think they were elected on European policies, they are naive beyond belief.
Come to think of it, how many can now remember clearly what mandate was given to Conservative MEPs who were elected? Are we sure where they all stand on things like a single currency or federalism?
Something must be done to alert everyone to the dangers ahead. But what and how? There is no way in which the political parties are going to be persuaded to withdraw from local elections. Even if it could happen, it would merely confuse an apathetic electorate who can think only in known party terms. In any case, a party in opposition can be expected to use every poll as a stick with which to beat the Government. Can we stop them?
It has been suggested that our national parties should decide to fight European elections under the banner of the European Groupings. Does anyone imagine that labels such as European Democratic Alliance, Rainbow Group and European Peoples' Party would mean anything? Only the Socialist Group would be recognisable and that, perhaps, for the wrong reasons.
Is there anyone who can persuade the electorate that by seeking referenda on national issues, politicians, for their own ends, are trying to deny choice on relevant matters? To legislate for what folk think is impossible, but surely someone ought to make a fuss when a national party leader or a candidate argues about matters outside the competence of the authority being constituted. Election law in Britain is strict and the penalties for evasion are severe, but is it not corrupt for the wrong arguments to be presented? Might they be described as gross misrepresentation which should be a serious election offence? Does anyone really suggest that by seeking election to the European Parliament on a policy about the Downing Street Declaration, Ian Paisley has any mandate? Can the Labour Party claim that Labour MEPs go to Strasbourg with authority to support the Socialist Group ideas for development of the Union? Politicians are playing a dangerous game with a two-edged weapon.
Judging by the way in which the Conservative Party used to conduct its Local Government campaigns when there was a Labour Government, they are unlikely to be different at European Parliament elections next time they are in opposition at Westminster.
To suggest that MPs can be persuaded to think long term is to cry for the moon. Their horizon will always be the next general election. It needs someone with prestige, charisma and, preferably, no party attachment to stand aside and concentrate the minds of the electorate before it is too late. Otherwise, the time will come when, because the wrong MEPs have been elected by the likes of my barber, Britain will find itself agreeing to something it detests because the issue was never explained. As things are, the National Government will then get the blame -- even if it has opposed the decision.
We already suffer in some areas because those in control at the Town Hall do unpopular things. The danger that a European Parliament with increasing powers will do the same puts democracy in danger.
Could someone launch a Campaign for Real Elections?
[Robert S. Redmond has had more than fifty years continual experience in politics as an Agent, Constituency Chairman and Member of Parliament.]…
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Publication information: Article title: What Went Wrong with Local Elections?. Contributors: Redmond, Robert S. - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 265. Issue: 1544 Publication date: September 1994. Page number: 134+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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