Across the coverage and reaction to Thursday’s local elections, too many commentators have completely missed the meaning of the results.
Watching the BBC’s turgid and often confusing late-night coverage (subject for another blog), viewers were treated to the views of an exclusively Westminster set – lobby reporters and MPs. Their comment and analysis amounted simply to speculation about what difference the emerging results made to party prospects at the next General Election. The audience was being told that it is the impact of these results on Westminster which really matters, with the House of Commons held up as the single end-game for all political activity.
We should not be surprised to hear the results framed in this way by Westminster lobby correspondents and Westminster politicians. All the parties were at it. When Simon Hughes and his Lib Dem colleagues were asked if this amounted to a “blood-bath” for the Liberal Democrats, his response was that mid-term polls aren’t a good predictor of general election results. This the equivalent of Chelsea losing the FA Cup final and Frank Lampard coming out to tell us in a post-match interview that “this result won’t have any bearing on the Champions league”. Fair enough Frank, but you’ve just lost the FA Cup.
A lot of this is perfectly sensible politics, but we shouldn’t forget that local elections matter in and of themselves. Councillors oversee large budgets funding vital local services, and their leadership arguably makes a far greater difference to local people than most parliamentary seats. This is even more important when money is short and the value-judgments of politicians taking tough decisions have a huge impact on citizens. The whole purpose of a political party is to exercise power according to a set of values to improve people’s lives. In which case every local election is an end in itself, and losing the power to improve the lives of citizens locally is more than just a “mid-term protest” or a “message to the government in Westminster”.
Suggesting that these results only matter in insofar as they impact on national politics reflects a longstanding Westminster village disconnect with the wider world that in part explains these appalling turnout figures.