Voters
in much of England went to the polls overnight in local government
elections, traditionally seen (at least by commentators) as an
important indicator of national trends. They could hardly have come at
a worse time for Tony Blair, who has been hit by a range of
simultaneous scandals and is being pushed to transfer power to his
chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. Meaningful results will not
come in until after your psephologist has gone to bed, but some general
points about the elections are worth making.

Firstly, their
importance is a matter of dispute. Commentators like them, but
commentators like anything that they can pontificate about. Their
actual predictive power in the past has been weak: at the last round,
in 2004, Labour did extremely badly, but those results were not borne
out in last year’s general election. Moreover, because it is not the
same councils that vote each time – outside of London, most of those
voting this year last voted in 2002 – making comparisons across time is
difficult.

Another problem is that so few people bother to vote.
Thursday in London was unseasonably warm, so turnout should be up, but
it will still be much lower than for a national election: in 2004 it
was under a third.

Intrinsically, these elections are no more
important than local elections in Australia: local government in both
countries has few important powers. But for national implications, they
are more analogous to a state election, or even two or three state
elections held on the same day. In other words, not without value in
identifying what’s happening at the national level, but to be used only
with great care.

At certain levels, however, perception becomes
reality. If the political class, desperate for guidance of some sort,
thinks these elections are important, then they are. As Simon Jenkins,
one of the UK’s best political commentators, put it in Wednesday’s Guardian, “British politics is passing through a period of ill-concealed hysteria. Any mirror on the wall will do, however cracked.”

This
is especially the case for the internal situation in the major parties:
the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are both having their first
outing under new leaders, while Labour is contemplating just how messy
its leadership transition is going to be. Bad results for Labour –
which seem a foregone conclusion – could end Blair’s career sooner
rather than later. But so far there is little evidence that Brown would
be any improvement, and since the next national election is probably
three years off, if he takes over this year he will have plenty of time
to outlive his honeymoon period.

Peter Fray

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