The Big Issues Donâ€™t Always Sway Elections
Even in general elections, matters that are of purely local significance can seriously affect the outcome in any given constituency. The obvious example is hospital reorganisations. Many health service professionals are convinced that closing A & E units in smaller hospitals, and concentrating services on larger hospitals, produces better health outcomes.
They may very well be right, but the political consequences can be horrendous for any governing party trying to defend the seat thatâ€™s affected. Labour were destroyed in Wyre Forest, in 2001, on this issue, at a time when they won a landslide victory. They may be similarly destroyed in Enfield North next time round, following the closure of the A & E unit at Chase Farm. The intended closure of the A & E unit as Edgware General, in the 1990â€™s, was enough on its own to lose the Conservatives Hendon and Brent North, in 1997, and to do further damage in the local elections, the following year.
There are three issues which I think have the potential to do similar damage in individual constituencies. The first is rubbish collection. Many authorities have moved to fortnightly rubbish collection, in order to encourage recycling. This has been wildly unpopular. The Conservatives lost at least two authorities against the trend, Salisbury and North Lincolnshire, because of public hostility on this issue. The Liberal Democrats suffered a landslide defeat in Bournemouth for the same reason. Nevertheless, in many areas, voters blamed the government, rather than their local council, for the inconvenience they suffered. Were they to take the opportunity to punish incumbent Labour MPs, then Labour might suffer a backlash in individual constituencies, regardless of the partyâ€™s overall share of the vote.
The second issue which could do real damage to incumbents is providing Travellersâ€™ sites. In the East of England Area, all local authorities have been told they must provide one or two additional Travellersâ€™ sites by 2010. I have never known an issue to generate such ill-feeling, in Hertsmere, as this one. Something like 4,000 letters have been written to the local MP on this issue, and at least 2,000 people have attended public meetings organised by the local council. Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are as angry about this as Conservatives. Similar levels of anger have been experienced in other authorities in the Eastern Area. If the government, rather than individual authorities, receive the blame for this, then the remaining Labour MPs in the Area could be very vulnerable at the next election.
The third is housing. The government wants more houses, particularly affordable houses, to be built across the country. Most residents, in Green Belt areas at any rate, donâ€™t want them. As a former Potters Bar councillor, I know that it is absolutely fatal, electorally, to shown anything other than total commitment to the Green Belt. Any suggestion that a council has not done its utmost to oppose Green Belt development will be punished by the voters. But if those voters see that the council is forced into allowing major housing developments by the government, then it will be Labour MPs, not local councils, who face an electoral backlash.
On all these issues, Labourâ€™s difficulty is that the vast majority of local councillors in the affected areas will be Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. They have a very strong vested interest in seeing that Labour take the blame for unpopular policies that the local authorities have to implement.
In addition to the two Parliamentary by-elections, there were four local council elections last night.
Ealing LBC, – Cleveland: Conservative 1519, Lib Dem 1288, Labour 539, Green 165. Conservative hold. This produced almost no swing between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, compared to 2006.
Ipswich BC – Castle Hill: Conservative 1028, Labour 385, Lib Dem 284. Conservative gain from Independent. The Independent had previously been elected as a Conservative, so this was really a Conservative hold.
Rushmoor BC- Heron Wood: Labour 423, Lib Dem 382, Conservative 330. Labour gain from Independent. In fact, the Independent was originally a Liberal Democrat. The result does show a small swing to the Liberal Democrats, compared to the last time the ward was contested.
Swansea CC – Llansamlet: Labour 769, Lib Dem 581, Plaid 283, BNP 226, Independent 221. Labour hold. This was a good result for the Liberal Democrats and a poor one for Plaid.
Sean Fear – a London Tory activist – is a regular contributor to the site