Out for the count? By Tony Travers

10 May 07
In the end, 'Super Thursday' wasn't meltdown for New Labour but neither was it a springboard for success. Tony Travers looks at the party's prospects after the local, Scottish and Welsh elections and Tony Blair's resignation

11 May 2007

In the end, 'Super Thursday' wasn't meltdown for New Labour but neither was it a springboard for success. Tony Travers looks at the party's prospects after the local, Scottish and Welsh elections and Tony Blair's resignation

The United Kingdom's bumper period of sub-national elections and political drama is coming to an end. The results of Scottish, Welsh and local elections and Northern Ireland's return to devolved democracy, combined with the end-game of the Tony Blair era, mark the earliest leading indicators of the future for Britain's government and public services. The interregnum between Blair and Gordon Brown will soon be over.

Before he fell on his sword, Blair offered an upbeat assessment of the state of his party. The results on 'Super Thursday' were, he suggested, a 'perfectly good springboard' for New Labour to win the next general election. But the truth is that Labour has lost power in Scotland, will have to run as a minority government in Wales and has virtually vanished from southern shire districts in England.

The results in the English local elections mean that Labour's activist base – and thus its capacity to fight all kinds of election – has been massively undermined. The Conservatives are strengthening their grip on local politics in most parts of England, although most notably in the rural south. There is still weakness in the Tory performance in metropolitan districts from the West Midlands north, however, and the party has many fewer metropolitan district councillors than it did at the end of James Callaghan's Labour government in 1979.

Conservative gains among unitary authorities included Blackpool, Bournemouth, Herefordshire, Plymouth, East Riding of Yorkshire, North Somerset, Torbay and Windsor & Maidenhead Royal. Districts gained by the Tories included Braintree, Crawley, Dover, High Peak, Lincoln, Rugby and South Ribble. Overall, the party had a net gain of 911 seats, while Labour lost a net 505 and the Liberal Democrats 246.

Lower council taxes and spending are the likely consequence of this switch to the centre-Right. Conservative authorities generally set slightly lower tax levels and, notwithstanding David Cameron's caring image, it is unlikely his troops on the ground will suddenly turn into high-spenders. Local politics is, after all, supposed to make a difference.

Local elections are often viewed as an opportunity to give the national government a bloody nose. But this time there was a local issue – refuse collection – that was crucial to the vote. The frequency of bin-emptying, rarely a page-turner, became the subject of a major Daily Mail campaign. Middle England's favourite newspaper adeptly found a good campaigning issue and went for it, hard, offering car and bin stickers to a disgruntled public. Peter Wilby, writing in the Guardian, rightly noted the Mail's capacity to judge its readership.

But what was most revealing about the issue was the way something as local as rubbish collections could become a matter of national concern. Thus, the frequency of a street-by-street service in, say, Hinckley and Bosworth, was reflected – via the national media – back into local voting patterns. A neighbourhood issue had an impact locally, but only after it had been much magnified by the national press. This is further evidence of the wholesale nationalisation of the political culture in England.

England, of course, had only local government elections. Unlike Scotland and Wales, devolution has offered little to the biggest country in the UK. London was given a mayor and Assembly, but with far fewer powers than those transferred to Wales or Scotland. Because Whitehall departments are run by people whose jobs would be threatened by any substantive decentralisation of power to regions or councils, Stalinism remains the dominant ideology, with no party offering much by way of an alternative.

Scotland has provided Britain with an array of political messages. First, devolution has finally dislodged Labour from hegemonic power within the country. The SNP's one-seat lead in the parliamentary election was a far greater achievement than the 47–46 result suggested.

However, it is worth remembering that in the not-so-distant past the Conservatives dominated Scottish politics. In this election, the Tories came in third with just 17 seats. The result might also move Scotland towards a vote on independence.

Second, in the Scottish local elections, the move to a single transferable vote electoral system resulted in all but five of the country's 32 councils coming under 'no overall control', with three of the five being 'Independents'. Labour enjoys outright control of the other two, leaving the SNP, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with none. It is too early to guess what impact these changes of control will have on spending or service levels within Scotland, but there surely will be different priorities and expenditure levels.

Third, the SNP fought the parliamentary election with a commitment to replace council tax with a nationally determined local income tax. Whatever the long-term outcome of horse-trading over government during the next four years, an SNP-Green-LibDem agreement about the abolition of council tax must be a real possibility. The SNP's manifesto proposal would require a new 3p Scotland-wide income tax to be supplemented by an increase in central grant. Under the new arrangements, councils would receive all their income from Edinburgh. Only in the medium term might there be local discretion in tax setting. There would inevitably be an argument with the Treasury about the fate of rebates currently paid to Scots council taxpayers.

Wales voted for less change than Scotland. Labour lost three seats in the Assembly, so it will remain the dominant player in the politics of the country. As in the Scottish Parliament, there appears to be a far larger centre-Left majority than in England. Labour, under Rhodri Morgan, is 'Old' rather than New. Plaid Cymru is avowedly 'socialist' and the Liberal Democrats mildly Leftish. Only about 30% of those who voted could be seen as on the political 'Right'. In Scotland, the figure is, amazingly, below 15%. (The England figure would be around 45%).

Commitment to traditional public spending and services in both Wales and Scotland looks likely to be unchanged by this year's elections. There was no 'Sarkozy moment' in either country. There is evident public support for a big State – albeit one funded to a significant extent by English taxpayers.

Meanwhile, attempts to write living obituaries for Tony Blair have boiled down to judgements – with Iraq, the erosion of civil liberties and the failure of public service reform seen as the main 'negatives'. The 'positives' include peace in Northern Ireland, a stable economy, attempts to provide international leadership over Africa and climate change, and improvements to public services. Depending on the commentator, the state of public services during the Blair decade is seen as either a success or a failure.

Those who judge it to be a success generally point to higher levels of spending and capital investment, notably in the NHS and education, though also in transport and international development. A major programme of hospital and school building has radically improved public infrastructure. Performance indicators suggest shorter waiting times, improved examination performance and falling crime. Even the railways are getting better. Moreover, all this has been achieved without damaging the private sector's growth.

The opposing view argues that despite billions of pounds worth of additional resources, there is scant evidence of sustained improvement – and certainly not much more than John Major's government achieved with far less cash. Public satisfaction with the NHS is low. Existing doctors have been overpaid while, recently, new ones have been very badly treated. Crime figures are disputed while violent attacks are daily news. In 1999, the prime minister himself talked of 'scars on my back' following efforts to push through public service reform.

Inevitably, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Public services are, generally, better funded and in many cases delivering better outcomes than in 1997. But it remains impossible to be sure these additional resources have delivered value for money, partly because Britain has no agreed way of measuring public sector productivity.

Tony Blair has had such a massive job as prime minister that it has proved impossible to devote himself consistently to any problem apart, perhaps, from Northern Ireland and Iraq. An hour spent working on the Middle East was an hour not available for the NHS.

Many judgements will be made about Blair in the weeks ahead. It is worth remembering that he and Gordon Brown have presided over ten straight years of uninterrupted economic growth, building on their inheritance from Kenneth Clarke. This is a far better result than any earlier Labour government achieved and is a key element in the Blair legacy. Mild redistribution of incomes has been achieved, but without undermining middle-class support for the policy. Child poverty has been reduced. Despite his many fierce critics, Blair is not actually Satan.

Only time will tell if Brown or Cameron can achieve as much. With the next general election unlikely to take place before late 2009 or spring 2010, we will now see up to two and three-quarter years of Brown government. It is widely expected that there will be a rush of 'I'm different from Blair' initiatives between July and the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October. John Reid's announced departure is an indicator of things to come. All August leave will surely be cancelled.

Standing back from the 2007 elections, the most worrying long-term implication is the erosion of trust in the voting process. Throughout Britain, postal voting has become a problem. Just before polling day, Birmingham reported a sharp decline in applications for postal votes now that new checking arrangements have been put in place. Falls of up to 80% were recorded in the six wards affected by the voting scandal of 2004. The implication of so much fraudulent voting in recent elections is grim.

In Scotland, the attempt to operate two different kinds of PR-based elections on the same day evidently confused the electorate. Indeed, with 'first-past-the-post' still in use for general elections, the Scots have every right to be fed up with the efforts of the political class to foist new voting systems on them. Counting proved difficult, with more than 100,000 invalid votes. This issue is very serious, particularly when it comes on top of the problems with postal voting in Birmingham and elsewhere.

There is a major risk that the scepticism that has grown up surrounding politics, government spin and official statistics will now extend to voting. Desperate efforts to increase turnout have encouraged malpractice to creep in. Some groups have, it would appear, attempted to undermine the sanctity of a system where individuals with the right to vote should independently cast one vote each. Problems with elections are now being made worse by a proliferation of voting systems. It will take more than an Electoral Commission inquiry to stop the erosion of confidence in British voting.

Finally, these elections also suggest that the UK is rapidly becoming a very different kind of democracy. Although the Labour-plus-Conservative vote perked up fractionally (to about 67%), it is well down on the 90+% achieved in the 1950s and 1960s. The collapse of traditional party membership and loyalty is being encouraged by the growing use of proportional representation. Labour is now dying out in the rural south of England, while the Conservatives still remain largely absent in the urban north. The chances of a single party winning an outright victory at the next general election recede by the day.

Brown might, therefore, be the last UK prime minister for some time who governs with a majority in Parliament. If politics become more fragmented and even less tribal, nationally provided and regulated public services might be all that remains of a homogenous, British, political culture. This is already to some extent true of the NHS across England, Wales and Scotland. Increasingly, individuals will dominate politics, as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before modern political parties emerged.

The 2007 elections were important. Voters made new choices. Equally importantly, the shape of Britain's increasingly strange new politics became clearer. Welcome to the classless, rootless, ideology-free, morally complex, multicultural, secular, hedonistic, celebrity-obsessed, private equity-owned Britain of tomorrow.

Tony Travers is the director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics


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