Leading Article: Vote on potholes, not Portillo

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TWO years after the general election, many people crave to make their anger heard on the state of the nation. So some will vote today in the council elections with scant regard for local issues. Instead of pondering rubbish collection and street lighting, minds will concentrate on VAT on fuel and the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

Who can blame electors for becoming so distracted? The Tories, despite their own calls for an election on local questions, seem intent on upstaging today's events. The behaviour at the weekend of Michael Portillo and David Evans in stoking the leadership debate is the latest example of self-indulgence by national politicians. Too many minor dramas at Westminster have prevented local affairs from enjoying their brief turn in the limelight. Tory councillors seeking to champion their achievements would be right to feel angry at being so overshadowed.

Labour, too, has demonstrated little enthusiasm for debating those matters over which local authorities have power. Its campaign has made no apology for trying to turn today's vote into a referendum on John Major. Only the Liberal Democrats, combining principle with self-interest, have stuck with local issues. Ideologically, they are committed to devolved power. But they also recognise that councils offer a base camp on the trail to parliamentary power.

Yet voters should think twice before letting Labour and the Tories distract them from weighing quality of schooling, efficiency of services and value for money before they mark their ballot papers. These are issues that should not be submerged by the ambitions of Mr Portillo or the political assassination of Mr Major. True, 80 per cent of local government activity is funded by the centre. But councils still enjoy considerable discretion. Voting should reflect their successes and their failures, not just those of Westminster.

To say, 'Vote locally, not nationally' may seem calculated to help save the Tories from disaster today: opinion polls suggest that the Conservatives will lose most support if people are thinking more about Parliament than potholes. The real aim is not to rescue the Tories, but to prevent local elections from becoming mere reflections of irritation with London politicians.

There are more appropriate ways to register mid-term discontent. Today's poll result will be confusing since only part of the country will participate. The Tories can hardly do worse than when these seats were last contested in 1990. So the size of their defeat will be obscured by a smokescreen of ministerial rhetoric.

In contrast, the European elections on 9 June will include the entire country. Additionally, numerous forthcoming by-elections offer opportunities for gestures of protest. Until these arise, those who want to send a message to the national parties should hold their fire and vote on local concerns close to their hearts.