An election dominated by just one issue: expenses

Forget local government, disregard the future of Europe: voting today will be all about punishing greed, says Andrew Grice

Even normally loyal grassroots activists in all three main parties have been so angry about the MPs' expenses scandal that they have refused to campaign for today's local authority and European Parliament elections.

If people like that are furious with the behaviour of MPs, then it's an understatement to say ordinary voters are even more angry. "It's been 'expenses, expenses, expenses' on the doorstep – often with an expletive attached," one Tory party canvasser admitted yesterday. A Labour source confirmed: "It's been a single issue campaign. We have tried to raise local services, but to no avail. Europe is the dog that didn't bark, even though it is a Euro election."

The earthquake that has shaken Westminster has, unusually, also reached every corner of the land. The expenses story, highlighting the gulf between politicians and the people, is so dangerous because the people understand it. "It's not so much the moats and the servants," one Labour MP said. "What I keep hearing on the doorstep is 'why the hell can't you buy your own food like the rest of us?'" Until the controversy forced a belated shake-up of the expenses system, MPs were allowed to claim £400 a month for food under their "second homes" allowance, without receipts and even when the Commons is not sitting.

Today the voters will get the chance to pass their judgement on such behaviour when elections take place in 34 local authorities in England, mainly in the county councils, and the UK-wide contest for 72 seats in the European Parliament. Some people will vote with their feet and stay away from the polling stations in disgust. Only one in three may bother to turn out. Indeed, some angry voters have told canvassers they will boycott the elections because of the expenses saga. They don't normally bother to explain why.

Officials in the three main parties believe privately that Labour, as the governing party, will take the biggest hit. But the Tories also expect to suffer damage, after the constant stream of revelations in The Daily Telegraph about how they used their allowances to maintain their country estates.

One intriguing question exercising the minds of all three parties is whether the Liberal Democrats are tarred with the same brush as the two bigger parties. Nick Clegg has had a "good war" on the expenses row and was the only main party leader to call publicly for the Commons Speaker Michael Martin to resign. But some Liberal Democrats fear the party may be seen by some voters as part of the problem rather than the solution.

If the third party gains between 30 and 50 council seats and makes a surprise gain in Bristol where Labour appears to be in trouble, it will be a sign that the Liberal Democrats are less contaminated than the big two parties. But a worse result than that for the Liberal Democrats will suggest the voters are saying "a plague on all your houses".

The Liberal Democrats are defending 370 seats in total, and will be challenged by the Tories for their only two councils of Somerset and Devon, in a dry run for a crucial general election battle in the South West.

Labour is defending 445 council seats. It fears losing its remaining four county councils – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. If it denies the Tories outright victory in Derbyshire – a tall order for David Cameron's party – Labour will present it as a triumph.

The Tories expect to capture at least 100 Labour seats and will be privately hoping for 200 gains. They will be looking to secure at least 40 per cent of the projected share of the national vote – the hurdle needed to show David Cameron is on course for Downing Street. The Tories are defending 1,048 of the 2,318 council seats up for grabs.

Who will benefit most among the smaller parties? UKIP has looked shambolic since being the surprise package at the last Euro elections in 2004 and does not have an unblemished record on expenses. Despite that, it has been given a new lease of life by the crisis at Westminster. Although the EU has had a low profile as an issue in the campaign (to the relief of some Tories), the fact that it is a Euro election should help UKIP. Its leader, Nigel Farage, has said he will resign if it wins fewer than 10 seats.

Last night Lord Kalms, a former Conservative Party Treasurer, and major Tory donor has said he would "lend" his vote to another party at tomorrow's European elections – almost certainly Ukip.

The Greens, who had their high water mark in Britain at the 1989 Euro election, have a spring in their step again and have moved up in the polls. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said last night: "A Green vote is much more than a protest against the big three. Let's remember they've been discredited not just by the expenses scandal, but by their lack of commitment to putting social and environmental justice at top of political agenda."

The Greens hope to deny the BNP its first seat in a nationwide election. But some party workers fear there may be a "spiral of silence" in which people tell pollsters they will support other parties (such as UKIP) but back the BNP in the privacy of the polling booth.

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