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Editor Cristina Odone, Literary Editor Joanna Moorhead; Advertisement Director James Hughes; Circulation Manager Tony Ashdown; Deputy Editor Murray White, News Desk Angus Macdonald and Lucy Lethbridge
Writing on the wall
THERE are some who would argue that we should stop allowing our political parties to hijack local elections for their own partisan muscle-flexing: local issues get buried in the rubble of party rhetoric, candidatesloyalty is torn between constituents' demands and the party agenda.
Once the campaign heckling is over, and victory assured, who will be served by the newly-elected politician — his party or his neighbours? How free, in the end, does the aspiring politician , eager to curry favour with the big-whigs at Westminster, feel , when it comes time to place local issues at the forefront of his agenda? As party perks and favours beckon at the summit of the political ladder, the line between party animal and local spokesperson becomes more and more blurred. When party and constituents diverge in their views, the man who owes his successful candidature to the party machine becomes little more than a "yes" man to Headquarters.
Despite the dilution of the local in "local politics" and the paucity of local heroes, a strong case for local elections can still be made: what better thermometer of the political climate than how votes are cast in the High Street? What surer way to gage the Government's popularity than to see how well it fares in the by-elections?
Obviously, this line of argument only holds true if Government pays heed to local election results.
Over the past fortnight, local elections and their results have sent shock waves through the political establishment. And rightly. so: even as sanguine a spokesperson as Michael Portillo was forced to admit that the Government has received a clear thumbs-down sign from voters: the battle of local elections has claimed as heaviest casualty Conservative seats. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, proving themselves to be the dark horse of the bunch, have raced to victory after victory, winning even the Grand National of local politics, Newbury.
Throughout last month, as a succession of Conservative bigwhit; were rolled into "Thatchertown" to rally supporters to the Tory cause, political analysts agreed that 6 May and the successive local elections would serve as a referendum on the Government's handling of the economy. Alas, the muchtrumpeted green shoots of recovery looked like a bunch of weeds to voters, who turned out in droves to just say "no".
In the Cabinet, one would have thought, heads should roll. Not so, argued Portillo this week: policy, not personnell, must change. Surely policy and personnel] are inextricably linked — in the electorate's eye if not in the Cabinet's? Who could divorce the national budget from the present Chancellor of the Exchequer? Health reform (or what passes for it these days) from Virginia Bottonaley? Who does not see John Patten as the architect of the present education policy?
The Government's head-in-the-sand attitude towards shedding some of these figure-heads may be interpreted as Mr Major's touching loyalty to supporters by a few, but by the great majority it will be seen as a resolute deafness to the vox populi. A responsible Government — or, at least, one bent on victory — would hear the alarm bells and step into the fray. If Lamont has become a symbol, of a wrong-headed approach to the economic state of the nation, should Major continue to hold onto him? Divesting itself of the architects of its more unpopular policies might just save the Government: hanging onto them would certainly be a sign to the electorate that political loyalty, rather than accountability to its constituency, lies at the core of its agenda.
Local elections provided the writing on the wall. It is now up to John Major to read it.