Steve Richards: The spectre of national politics looms large, but this is not a vote for Cameron or Brown

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:10

On days such as these it is tempting to state the obvious. Elections are big, nail-bitingly nerve -wracking tests for political leaders. Of course they are. There is no bigger test for politicians than when voters have the chance to give their verdicts.

But, less obviously, elections are a test for voters too as they decide who should wield power over them: Can they make the connections between what is happening in their daily lives and the actions of seemingly distant political figures? Are they able to make their way through the one-sided accounts delivered by some newspapers and by those broadcasters who have a tendency to be biased in favour of the safely established political narrative?

Not surprisingly, and with some justification, the results of the elections, especially the contest in London, are being viewed through the prism of national politics. Can Gordon Brown hold on to London? Can David Cameron win in the capital? These are important questions, but they are not ones that should be uppermost in voters' minds.

Amidst the frenzy, it is easy to forget that neither Brown nor Cameron is standing in the capital. Whatever happens today in London and elsewhere, Brown will be Prime Minister tomorrow and Cameron the leader of the opposition. Voters will fail the test if they make their judgements on the basis of national politics alone.

Instead, sensible voters must stand back and attempt to make those connections. Evidently, this is a challenging task. If it were easier to recognise a link between the noisy din of high politics and the lives of voters, there would be more interest in political issues. There might even be as much interest, say, as there is in the fortunes of the England football team.

The failure of voters to make connections is the only reason why Ken Livingstone might lose today. As I have written before, many elections present difficult choices. Today's contest in London is not one of them. Livingstone has been an extraordinarily successful Mayor under difficult circumstances. Presumably some voters have complacently forgotten what the city was like before he got the job, queuing for tickets to go on a hopeless underground service, waiting for buses that never came, no hope of a new Crossrail linking parts of this unwieldy capital.

Now travellers whiz through the ticket machines with their oyster cards, the rate of increase in cars entering the city has stalled and buses run around the clock. Recently I met on holiday a non- Labour voter who lived in Bristol, despairing of her local authority that had failed to seize the initiative on every front. "I wish we had someone like Ken Livingstone", she added. She was making the connections, recognising the quality of her life had been impaired by local politics and also that it could be enhanced.

Apparently some voters living in the suburbs of London are incapable of such recognition. Polls suggest that in the outer parts of the capital, voters will turn out in large numbers to support Boris Johnson. Presumably those striding to the polling stations seething with misjudged fury at Livingstone, and hailing Johnson as a decent chap, have decided that it is a coincidence that their teenage kids are now able to get around the city relatively smoothly on the buses. Perhaps those over 60 who travel for nothing believe that their free access is a gift from God. The voters in the outer suburbs have most reasons to feel grateful to Livingstone. He has made the centre more accessible.

Those who do not see this fail to meet the test, so sheltered in their disconnected, atomised lives that they assume things happen around them without reason, no buses one year, lots the next, cheaper houses one year and none the next.

They have failed on a second count too. They have fallen for the relentless anti-Livingstone propaganda in the Evening Standard, spiced by the spineless imbeciles at Channel Four who echoed the orthodoxy by making a one-sided anti-Livingstone film. Would it not be a triumph for democracy if the voters of London showed that they are bright enough not to be brainwashed by an unelected newspaper? But once more polls suggest that some voters will fail to meet this test, admittedly a difficult one when a powerful newspaper presents politicians to an electorate that are, understandably, too busy to follow politics unmediated.

Voters will fail the test also if they head for the polling station to give Livingstone a kicking on the grounds that they do not like him. As an individual, Livingstone will flourish if he loses today. He will earn a lot more money for less pressurised work. He will have a ball, while those that seek to punish him in the ballot box will suffer from a decline in the quality of their lives. Voters are quite capable of acting in ways that punish themselves.

Similar challenges apply for voters across the country. At a national level, the Conservative message has been vote blue and get green. Have Tory councils used the limited levers available to them to improve the quality of public life? Have Labour or Lib Dem councils failed to use the levers in ways that inspire, or at least suggest a degree of competence? Voters must try to make the connections.

Over the next few days, the story will move on. With good cause, cabinet ministers anticipate another bleak storm if Labour fares even more badly than when these elections were last contested. Increasingly anxious Labour MPs, especially those with small majorities, will become more worried too. Their worries will fuel the gloom. Brown will have to display so far unseen leadership skills to lift the gloom and yet within weeks he faces the crazy self-inflicted wound of a Commons' vote on his plans to extend to 42 days the time suspects can be held without charge. He faces many tests over what will be a febrile summer.

Cameron will get a significant boost over the next few days, giving credibility to his claim that he is leading his party towards power. But has he got a coherent programme if he was to form a government, and is it one that can unite a party still hungry for tax cuts and acts of extreme Euro-scepticism? Brown hit home at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday when he accused the Tory leader of being a shallow salesman. In his search for principled substance Cameron faces challenges too.

But today it is the voters, not the political leaders, who face a series of tests. I wonder how many of them will pass.

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