Wanted: a calm voice above the babble

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY's little row in the Commons chamber was squalid stuff. Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, was scaremongering about old people and the National Health Service. But John Major's over-excited and ill-judged reply, as MPs from both sides whooped and yah-booed, was not what one expects from a prime minister. Yes, the local election campaign has started, and homo electus goes funny in election season. But the lack of still, small voices of calm does a lot of harm to politics generally.

The misinformation swirling round the local election campaign, in particular, is already so thick that we are all in danger of getting lost. The facile statistics about council tax are impossible to judge without a detailed analysis of the rules by which central government distributes its grants. But only one person in the country is said to understand this, and he went mad many years ago.

Who does know which councils are bad, and which are not? Well, local voters, actually. These contests are concerned, at least partly, with local planning issues, traffic, petty corruption, the building of new council offices, and countless other rows that are individually familiar to the readers of hundreds of local newspapers, but are largely unknown to national politics. I wouldn't go to the prime minister, or any senior politician of any party, for a fair assessment of the records of local authorities. They are all, compared with public- minded local voters, ignorant.

Nor do local elections tell national politicians much about the future. Turn-out tends to be low and therefore probably unrepresentative. They may send Westminster vague messages about party image - is Labour still thought to be spendthrift, are the Tories really so hated in parts of the south? But as a guide to the next general election, they are rather less interesting than Old Moore's Almanac.

None of that stops parliamentarians from trying to claim famous victories or draw national conclusions. In judging what they say, it is important to recall that there are two levels of victory being striven for. First, the small matter of votes and council results - the real results. But then, second, comes the battle over their interpretation, which at the Palace of Westminster, though nowhere else, matters more. Do we focus on a few well-known council battlegrounds? That would probably benefit the Tories. Kenneth Baker's trick as party chairman in 1990, when he gift-wrapped the Wandsworth and Westminster successes to disguise a terrible result elsewhere, has not been forgotten.

This time it seems as if the Conservatives are concentrating a lot of attention on Birmingham. If they can remove Labour as the party with overall control and hang on to their two central London fortresses - not unlikely results - Sir Norman Fowler will have the raw material to 'do a Ken'. Whether the press will be quite so gullible, or so eager to defend John Major as it was to help Margaret Thatcher remains to be seen.

Labour, defending far more seats, will be anxious to concentrate on the overall picture and, especially, the share of the vote. It, and the Liberal Democrats, will be relying on second-thoughts journalism, which points out the local swing and tries to project it nationally. This may provide a fairer assessment of the result of the voting but, as a political exercise, it will be almost as bogus as the trick the Conservatives are intent on playing.

So what are we to make of the notion that these elections are 'really' a referendum on the Prime Minister? This has been put about openly by the Labour Party and through nudges and winks by Conservative Central Office. I can understand Sir Norman's game. He knows that the Tories are likely to do just well enough for a PR success and that, of the hurdles Mr Major faces, the local campaign is the lowest.

But what is the Labour Party up to? The conspiracy-theory explanation is that John Smith, the Argyllshire Machiavelli, is keen to keep Mr Major in Downing Street. It is true that Labour fears Michael Heseltine much more than the current incumbent. But a more plausible explanation is that Labour simply finds it can get voters out most easily by dragging in the unpopular Mr Major by name.

The local elections, though, would spell doom for Mr Major only if they were truly catastrophic - and that means the loss of Wandsworth and Westminster. The European elections are closer to the heart of his authority.

Even then, the important thing will be not the detail of the results, but the impression made on Conservative MPs with majorities of fewer than, say, 7,000. They will look at Mr Major and ask whether he has what it takes to help them to keep their seats and, if they decide he does not, they will move against him.

And this brings us back to the small row yesterday. For when Tory MPs come to make that decision, Mr Major's use of language will be an important factor. The power of politicians over the economy or social change may be rather limited. But what they can do is talk to the country about where it is going, what matters, what doesn't. Margaret Thatcher was no orator either, but she was able to tell a story about Britain that persuaded people they were part of history, and that, despite U-turns and blind alleys, there was a direction and a purpose to her rule. Labour had no rival story, and still doesn't.

More and more, it seems to me, Mr Major's problem is one of eloquence. A leader must strive to convey to the people a sense of what is happening, some proportion, an overview. It is a hard job to cut through the cacophony of instant phrase-making and media soundbites, but it has become absolutely essential. A prime minister should be standing above the babble not, as yesterday, adding to the noise.