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Editorial: More than just mid-term woe for David Cameron

Localism is an attractive theory but it comes fraught with practical problems

The outcome of this week's three by-elections and ballots for police commissioners could not have been much bleaker for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives performed abysmally in the parliamentary votes and the risibly low turnouts in the contests to become police chiefs looked painfully like a rejection of what was once hailed as a defining policy for David Cameron's leadership.

Normally, such dire by-election results for the governing party could be dismissed as protests. After all, Labour won most mid-term by-elections in the 1980s, and was still slaughtered at the subsequent general election. Yet yesterday's loss of Corby in particular raises awkward questions for Mr Cameron. A certain amount of the blame justifiably falls on Louise Mensch: the outgoing Tory MP's decision to move with her family to New York was not well received by her constituents. But the scale of Labour's win was still impressive. And the UK Independence Party also flexed its electoral muscles, coming in ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Cameron is caught in a difficult bind. He is facing a Labour Party showing tentative signs of recovery from its 2010 defeat, while to his right there is an anti-EU party attracting votes at a point when Europe soars up the political agenda. But if the Tory leader hardens his stance on the EU to appease Eurosceptics, he risks giving up an even greater share of the more moderate centre ground he once sought to occupy. And his departure from this electorally fertile terrain in other policy areas is one of the reasons his party struggled in the by-elections.

Although ostensibly an indictment of just one policy, the low turnout for the police chiefs' elections is a source of even greater misery for the Prime Minister. The plan for Police and Crime Commissioners was central to Mr Cameron's early political vision. In opposition, his "big idea" was the redistribution of power from the centre, and the election of police commissioners was cited as a key example, along with the revival of elected mayors.

In practice, there are few mayors, and police chiefs have now been elected on a wave of indifference. Localism is an attractive theory, but it comes fraught with any number of practical problems, not the least of which is voter apathy. Perhaps the London-based media would have shown more interest if there had been a vote in the capital, too. But there is more blame elsewhere. Mr Cameron's approach to the elections has been positively lacklustre, for what was supposed to be a pivotal reform. He made little or no effort to encourage substantial figures to stand and refused to provide resources to publicise the contests.

Such laxity has only exacerbated the challenges the new system will face. Senior police officers have expressed concern over blurred lines of accountability, warning of a repeat of the confusion in London, where the Metropolitan Police's responsibility to the Home Office, the Mayor of London and the Assembly leaves it a servant of too many masters. It was always incumbent on the newly elected commissioners to work through such issues. But an only shakily credible electoral mandate will not help them.

Despite the Labour candidates' strong performance in this week's by-elections, all the political parties should be worried. Only in Corby was the turnout respectable. Although the reasons for voters' disengagement are deep-rooted ones, there are simple logistical changes that would help to stem the decline. Electronic voting is a case in point. Scheduling votes for weekends rather than weekdays would also make a difference. The Government must bear primary responsibility for the woeful lack of public interest in police commissioners. But there are also lessons for the electoral system as a whole.