Britain’s set to go to the polls on May 3rd for local and mayoral elections and it’s a good time to take stock of the contrast between now and 2008. Four years ago, the Tories and, to some extent, the Liberal Democrats had the shock of the new. Labour were saddled with a titantically unpopular leader, the global economy had almost collapsed and Red was out, Blue was in. Four years later, Labour will be on the ascendant, the Tories are trouble and Nick Clegg looks like being the mudguard for coalition unpopularity. That fickle, promiscuous political hinterland, the ‘middle ground’ appears to be changing its affections again.
The ‘posh boy’ jibes thrown at David Cameron and George Osborne seem to be gaining some traction. There is an in-built Tory millionaire majority in the Cabinet; this is a fault-line that Labour was wary of opening up in the past but is now looking more of a major vulnerability point for an administration that likes to say ‘we’re all in this together’. With the UK in double-dip recession, rich Old Etonians have less moral and political capital with which to lecture others about tightening their belts. Cameron is mired in Murdoch-related mud and part of him must be ruing the day he ever cosied up to the Dirty Digger. As many commentators have observed, Cameron is good in a crisis but Omnishambles may threaten to overwhelm anyone’s resources.
And now to the nominally second-most powerful posh boy in the Government, ex-Westminster pupil Nick Clegg. After two years (maybe even just a few weeks after entering coalition), Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have realised that it’s going to be a massive struggle just to tread water at the next General Election. There’s a tendency of the English hive-mind electorate to cleave towards majority governments and the role of a king-maker, while normal in the rest of the EU, seems distinctly un-British (to the English). For the Lib Dems, the only way is down and on that downward spiral they’ll have to decide whether they are closer to the Left or the Right; their attempts at triangulation have resulted in them often looking powerless, irrelevant and unprincipled.
This is a massive test for Ed Milband. It’s been a difficult two years for the Labour leader, with lots of sniping from the Beltway about his lack of charisma. There’s no questioning his smarts but it’s his ability to connect with voters that will be put to the test. If he and Labour can win the post-vote spin as to what are ‘significant’ gains, he and his party will experience a significant gear shift. A good result for Miliband will shut the Blairites up for longer or at least make them less credible. The Miliband/Balls double act has recently been tearing strips off the Government; a good result on May 3rd will see Labour well positioned for the next national poll. Twenty years after Neil Kinnock’s shock defeat, Ed Miliband is out to show that he can beat the Tories by out-gaming and out-planning them.
But the media will probably focus more on the straight personality contest that is the London Mayoral Election. The prize is glittering; to be the capital’s First Citizen for the 2012 Olympics. While there is a plurality of candidates, it’s come down to face-off between Boris and Ken, again. The problem for Cameron is that if Boris wins, as he’s tipped to do, and the Tories do badly nationally, you have the spectre of the merits of Cameron’s leadership stalking the Conservatives until 2014/2015. A small win for Boris and a Tory drubbing in the rest of
the country might be a very playable result for Labour (while still wanting a Ken Livingstone win obviously).
So, in the end, why do local elections matter? In many ways, they don’t. Most people don’t vote in them, UKIP, the Greens and other smaller parties do better than they’d do in a National Poll and the government of the day tends to get trounced. But there are still only two main routes into national politics; to be elected locally or to leapfrog that and go in from being a Special Advisor (SPAD). They also matter for the party leaders; local and mayoral results can show that the party brand is popular, growing in popularity, declining or toxic. For Cameron, this could be the start of the reckoning, for Miliband, if not the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning.