It's the buses, stupid: The next election could be decided by local issues

For those MPs and journalists who commute effortlessly to work on the Jubilee line, a policy on buses must seem like parish-pump, parochial stuff
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The Independent Online

What on earth is going to happen at the next general election? The political parties are becoming less and less certain as we get closer to May 2015. The old rules about one-term oppositions failing to win back power, or which party has the strongest poll rating on economic competence, don't apply any more. The emergence of the Green Party in fourth place ahead of the Liberal Democrats in two polls in the past fortnight – and the long-term trend shows the Greens are becoming stronger – and the surge of the SNP at the expense of Labour, which could turn out to be decisive in the general election, shows we are now into six-party politics. The old cliché that the election will be decided on "the economy, stupid", may not work. It is much more unpredictable.

Ed Miliband has been having a terrible autumn, but last week he announced a policy that could make the difference in the marginal seats that matter most. That this announcement barely registered in the national newspapers goes to the heart of Westminster's failure to understand voters.

As unsexy as it might sound, the Labour leader's plan is about buses. For those MPs and journalists who commute effortlessly to work on the Jubilee line, a policy on buses must seem like parish-pump, parochial stuff. And that is the genius of it: because the parish pump is where it matters. For too long Westminster has concerned itself with the views of the man on the Clapham omnibus, when it should be thinking of the person on the Leeds to Halifax 508.

Miliband, as part of a wider plan to transfer £30bn worth of funding to the regions over five years, wants to give greater powers to local authorities over bus routes and charging, allowing them to introduce smarter Oyster-style top-up cards to end the scandal of, for example, a bus fare in Tyne and Wear being more expensive than one in London. While bus use in the capital has increased, it's falling in the rest of the country, partly because fares have increased 15 per cent and 1,300 routes have been axed.

Post-Scottish referendum, political parties and journalists have obsessed over how to deliver greater powers and economic growth to the UK outside the capital. Smooth, affordable journeys to and from work are the route to prosperity. David Cameron and George Osborne have half of the answer with HS3, speeding up travel between northern cities, but for those who commute from outer suburbs to their nearest city, a reliable, affordable bus route is the difference between a region living or dying.

Tony Blair relaunched the idea of localism under his government, with foundation hospitals and academies, but devolving power street by street, bus route by bus route, is real localism. Voters care more about buses than we in Westminster think: my local council election last May was fought over the extension of one route a few stops to join up with the London Overground service. It was incredible how it shifted votes to the party that promised to do something about it: Labour.

Miliband's proposal for the House of Lords to be replaced by an elected senate made up of local representatives, first floated by Chuka Umunna in this newspaper in September, is also important. The current regional representation in the Upper Chamber is atrocious: 266 peers are from London and the South-east, while 62 are from Scotland, 24 from Wales, 21 from the North-east, 24 from the North-west and only 14 from the East Midlands.

Does it matter that the collective response from national newspapers to Miliband's bus policy was an underwhelmed groan? Local papers, which polls show are more trusted by voters than nationals, put the idea on their front pages. As the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett tells me today, the next election could be decided by local issues, seat by seat, candidate by candidate. Perhaps then, when it comes to the general election, we can say, "it's the buses, stupid".

Democracy inaction

Speaking of the Green Party, it and the SNP are absolutely right to kick up a fuss about the BBC's refusal to let them take part in the election TV leaders' debates. Given that the SNP's draining of Labour votes, according to last week's Ipsos MORI poll, could decide the election result, it is remarkable that Nicola Sturgeon should not be invited. So too should Natalie Bennett: her party won 1.2 million votes in the European elections, and they've had an MP since 2010, while Ukip, which is in one debate, has had only one since last month. As fans of Borgen will know, Denmark's election TV debates feature as many as eight candidates standing at a lectern, and it works. The BBC's elections output is called Democracy Live – so it should put its money where its slogan is.

There's room for more

The awarding of the Order of the White Lion, the Czech Republic's highest honour, to 105-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton last week for his rescue from the Nazis of 669 mainly Jewish children – by organising a "Kindertransport" to England – is a shining light of British humanitarianism. Speaking about the award last week, Sir Nicholas said it was what "anyone should have done" – the basic human urge to help others. Yet where is that common humanity now, in the British Government's decision to withdraw support for rescue missions of African migrants in the Med? As the anti-fascist campaigner Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate points out, the Czech President told Sir Nicholas: "I thank the British people for making room for them [the children]."

Seeds of change

In 2011, The Independent on Sunday launched a campaign to save allotments from development after it emerged that the century-old protection for sites was being scrapped. Ministers caved in, and David Cameron said that allotments would be protected. But by the back door, Eric Pickles approved plans by Watford Council to seize Farm Terrace, a family site that's been there for more than a century. On Friday, a High Court judge ruled in favour of the allotmenteers. If they had lost, this would have given the green light for any council to build on allotments and 1,000 years of history would have been buried. A line has been drawn in the soil.

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