Endless fiddle and local election faddle

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BANK HOLIDAYS are a perilous time for pundits. You are just sitting there, soaking up the long weekend when - wham] - you get hit by a sense of proportion. This can be disastrous. Perhaps, you think, the world extends beyond London SW1. Perhaps there is more to life than the latest bulletin on the Prime Minister's political health. You lie back and try to forget such horrible suspicions. But it is no good. The worm of doubt is in, and wriggling hard.

In fact, I have already argued that the local elections, this week's main event, are a poor guide to anything national. But as I potter about streets colourfully decorated with rival placards - for some reason the Conservatives hereabouts favour pink - the thought hits me that it is simply impertinent to translate local votes into Westminster conclusions.

My neighbour has strong views about the fate of the local ice rink, and votes to register her protest accordingly. My neighbour is then told by the national media that she has 'given John Major a much- needed boost of confidence'. You could have fooled her. Another local family vote because they are pleased with the local school, or the new system of rubbish collection, and discover, to their mystification, that they have helped to deal a death-blow to the Prime Minister.

No doubt there are some people who will wake up on Thursday morning after a sleepless night, rub their eyes and say to themselves: 'I must say, I thought that Downing Street's handling of the qualified majority voting row was most infelicitous. I know, I'll go and vote against Councillor Albert Roughage. That should send an unmistakable message.'

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that such people are in a minority. Most of us will decide our allegiance by thinking about the quality of local services and the likely impact of local tax levels on strained personal budgets. Some will vote out of unalterable tribal allegiance to one party or another. Pretty few will do so on the basis of macro-economics, the personality of the leader of the Conservative Party, or the future of Britain in Europe. They may wish to discuss such matters with local party workers, but their crosses will be placed on the basis of self-interest - enlightened or otherwise.

This is one reason why I would counsel great caution about poll-

based reports that the Tories are going to be slaughtered. Or, to put it another way, if they do lose between 300 and 400 seats and control of their flagship councils, then it means anger about their record is so deep that the normal rules of politics have been up-ended. Some Tories think this is so. One senior party figure told me last week he had been out on the stump: 'I have only one word to say. Catastrophe.'

None of the above means that all comment on the local election results is in vain. Very bad results will still panic Tory MPs. Commanding the political classes to cease analysis is like commanding silence from a bush of thrushes. But it does mean that pundits should exercise due modesty. Our splay-footed certainties should not be taken too seriously. (It is worth recalling that the word 'pundit' originated as a term of derision. It was coined in 1854 after businessmen from Rochester, New York, formed a club 'devoted to the serious and conscientious investigation of the truth'. Their wives, clearly finding this hilarious, used the Hindi term 'pandit', implying learning, to mock such pomposity.)

However, the need for modesty extends far beyond the analytical aftermath of these elections. The appropriation of this week's results to serve a quite unrelated metropolitan agenda is only one symptom of Westminster's mania for interference in subjects that ought not to be its business. For a generation, ministers have treated local government as a plaything.

Like incompetent gardeners they have arrived every few years, pronounced it to be in need of reform, dug it up, torn off a few branches, stuck it down again. Any sign of wilting is taken as evidence that it needs to be dug up again. Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle. Of course, national parties will always use local politics as raw material for propaganda, and that is fine. But the basis for local administration, the ground rules, ought to straightforward, consistent and agreed. People need to understand, and to get on with it. Instead, the institution of local government has been allowed no dignity in modern Britain. Westminster has not treated it with minimal courtesy, never mind respect.

Had we a written constitution, involving a settlement of local and national powers, this would not be so. Short of that, is there anything that can sensibly be proposed?

The recent turmoils have produced a condition in local government which cannot simply be walked away from. Like everyone else, I have my pet enthusiasms - they include Labour's idea for annual elections of a third of each council, just at budget-setting time, and Michael Heseltine's old dream of directly elected mayors. But the most important thing now is to rebuild a national consensus about local democracy. The current reforms should be shelved so that the Government can start to seek agreement about the future size, status and funding of local government.

That would be a big job, certainly, and might take several years. But the aim would be ambitious: to get agreement from all parties. They could then make a Westminster Declaration that they did not intend to meddle again for, say, another 20 years. Such a self-denying ordinance could not be binding, but it would make MPs think long and hard before reopening the subject. Is this too much to ask? Maybe. But given the current mood of cynicism about national politics, it would seem, from my back garden, a pretty shrewd move.