What Went Wrong with Local Elections?

Article excerpt

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. …