You cannot degrade democracy and expect thanks

Successive governments have removed local council powers. Now the Conservatives are paying the price
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The Independent Online
What a curious disaster it has been: an electoral retribution so savage that the ruling party promises ... absolutely nothing. Leading Tories pop up to explain that, first, it has got nothing to do with the leader and second, it has got nothing to do with the policies. Both, apparently, are hugely successful. So who, or what, is it to do with? The answer, it seems, is the electorate, who are frankly not behaving well at all.

So John Major promises not to "run away" and, rather touchingly, gives the impression that he thinks this news will reassure people. "No excuses" - but no lessons either. Cabinet ministers tell us that the votes of millions of irate Britons have been, by some mysterious process, "discounted" in the argument about Major's future. Discounted? Discounted by whom? But this, according to the Government, is a cataclysm without consequences.

We will have to wait until Parliament returns on Tuesday to see whether Tory MPs also think this. But there is a powerful case for thinking that almost anything the Conservative government could now do would make things worse for it, not better.

Dumping Major is very dangerous. A contested leadership could finally smash this government apart, without bringing in someone whose ideas or instincts would differ. And most of the alternative Tory policies on offer are mad, bad or injurious to the national interest. An inflationary house price boom would work wonders in the short term, but would represent the final defeat of Major's central purpose, before bringing its savage economic penalty. Similarly, Major could pledge himself now against a single currency. But since, quite rightly, he regards the closing-off of European options as being against Britain's interest, it is hard to see why local election results should change his view.

Other policy options are easier said than done. I think we can take it for granted that the search to find spending cuts is already desperate. What else do the advocates of Tory populism suggest? Repatriation? Hanging? Most readers of the Independent will rest easier in their beds if the Government fails to come up with whizzo new wheezes to win back Essex for the right.

Had this been a political disaster merely, the Conservatives would have been right to trudge on. But there is a more serious story behind Thursday's drama, which goes back many years. The Conservatives have walked with their eyes open into a constitutional trap. They have undermined local democracy and now, by doing so, have undermined themselves.

When ministers complain that voters have allowed their anger about things that are nothing to do with these elections to overwhelm their local interests, they have a point. How many people went out into the heat on Thursday angry about tax rises, interest rates and job insecurity caused by vain ministerial struggles with the global economy - and then vented that anger on poor old Gladys Pippin CBE, who had done nothing worse than spend 20 years of her spare time trying to keep down local taxes and increase local security through her doughty service on the police committee? Unjust? Of course: all those hurt old faces at town hall counts across rural England told the story. Many had been serving their neighbours decently for half a lifetime - living communitarians - and were cruelly rewarded.

But this is a form of political injustice devised in Central Office and visited on local Conservatives by the party in government. There is a dramatic constitutional dynamic at work in Britain which has produced its most extreme consequence this week.

The lack of a planned and balanced British constitution has been a problem for local government since the dawn of mass democracy. The party-politicisation of local politics, which reached its full flood after the Second World War, means that local councils under the control of Opposition parties are at the mercy of Westminster. Whether it was Labour and the grammar schools, or the Tories and competitive tendering, successive cabinets crushed local autonomies without a backward glance.

This tendency became much sharper under Margaret Thatcher. Labour, smashed at national level, retreated to its local bastions. She followed in remorseless pursuit, abolishing the GLC, introducing ever tighter spending controls and a stream of changes in education, training, housing and much else.

Whatever the justification for this act or that, the cumulative effect has been to make local democracy matter much less. How many inhabitants of those councils which changed hands this week will notice a real difference over the next 12 months? That is the real answer to those ministers who whinge that voters fail to treat these elections as serious events.

The public was merely following the centralist obsession of the Thatcher and Major governments. If they didn't take local democracy seriously - and since 1979 there have been more than 150 Acts of Parliament reducing the powers of local authorities - then why should those "discounted" local voters?

The destructive dynamic is obvious. As central government takes powers from the local level, encouraging voters to treat local elections as mere opinion polls (and, more positively, a weak defence against the growth of centralised power), so local authorities fall ever more dramatically into the hands of opposition parties. So the Tory centre takes more power away. And so on. The logical end point would be a system of local government which had almost no power and almost no Tory councillors - and that is just about where we are today.

There are Conservative theorists who will ask, so what? Scotland's gone. Now Wales is gone. England, they remind us, is a unitary state, always run from the centre. This is protest-vote stuff which doesn't have any consequences for a proper election.

I predict that the shallowness and danger of this view will be demonstrated over the next couple of years so visibly that even the most blinkered cabinet ministers will be forced to abjure it. All parties need their local workers and their local bases, and the Conservatives are now losing both. Members have flooded out. Councils have been voted out. They have allowed Labour to establish political leadership in target seats across their heartland territory. After years of centralist politics, they have ended up with a grotesquely over-centralised party, whose local roots are being grubbed up. The lack of strong local Tory parties will contribute, one day, to a lack of Tory MPs.

Is there anything the Conservatives can now do about this? The dramatic thing would be to come clean, admit that the Tory failure to nurture and protect local democracy in this country has been a disastrous mistake, and try, even now, to reverse it.

Yet here our destructive dynamic returns. If the Government resolved now, in 1995, to return the powers to local authorities, they would be handing them straight to Labour and the Lib Dems, empowering the very people they have laboured to make impotent. So even if the Conservatives come to realise their disastrous constitutional error, they are unlikely to do anything about it. After years of warnings, it is too late. They have made a trap and locked themselves inside it.

This puts a heavy responsibility on Labour - which looks more like a national party than at any time for a generation - and perhaps on the Liberal Democrats, too. For if and when the time comes for the Opposition to become the Government, it will have to restore Britain's local democracy.

It won't be easy. Remember, by then Tony Blair and his colleagues will be the people being blamed for insecurity and taxation; and the scale of Labour success now will mean, almost inevitably, that it in turn is suffering huge losses in local government elections by the late Nineties.

So a Labour cabinet would be being asked to hand back powers to newly elected Tory councils, perhaps right-wing Tory councils whose politics they abhorred. That is a lot to ask. Hard choices, though, are the reward of winning power, and if Labour means what it says about reviving British democracy, this is a challenge it must one day face. The size of the Tory failure this week is awesome. But it is matched by the size of the task of rebuilding ahead.