Leaders: No party left unscathed by a disenchanted electorate

THE voters have had their say: what lessons should the politicians learn? For David Cameron and the Conservatives, their poor showing in Thursday’s local elections hardly comes as a surprise.

THE voters have had their say: what lessons should the politicians learn? For David Cameron and the Conservatives, their poor showing in Thursday’s local elections hardly comes as a surprise.

Yet this was not just the result of weary voters registering unhappiness with austerity.

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Polls show the electorate has more confidence in the Tories’ handling of the economy than Labour’s. Instead, Mr Cameron has to take responsibility for a period of abject ministerial incompetence involving everything from jerry cans to BSkyB. Mr Cameron is no doubt hoping for an outbreak of competence among his administration and giving thanks he has until 2015 for it to manifest itself.

For Ed Miliband and Labour there is much to savour. Labour has recaptured its heartland in the North of England, and given the SNP an unexpected run for its money in Scotland. But it is only a few weeks since George Galloway humiliated Labour in Bradford. Labour is benefiting from voter antipathy to the Coalition and, north of the Border, to Mr Salmond’s preoccupation with constitutional matters. Mr Miliband should not mistake this voter disenchantment for support for his increasingly shrill, class war rhetoric.

For Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems, things got even worse – if that were possible. The Lib Dems have now lost their vital local government base in the English north, rendering them again a southern party. With that base goes much of their ability to campaign. Mr Clegg should not comfort himself this was just about association with “toxic Tories”. The defeat of Jenny Dawe, the Lib Dem leader of Edinburgh Council, and 12 of her colleagues, was a just verdict on the long saga of the city’s tram project under her inept stewardship.

For Alex Salmond and the SNP, the elections were a disappointment no matter how much the Nationalists spin the results. They will field the largest number of councillors – one definition of winning. But Scottish Labour under Johann Lamont has recovered confidence, as seen in the increased activity of its members on the ground compared to 2011. Labour retains control of Glasgow – the SNP’s prime target.

It would probably be more correct to call the outcome of the Scottish local elections a draw. Labour may have blunted the SNP’s momentum in Glasgow, but the electorate are reminding Mr Salmond he is in office to improve their wellbeing, not just campaign for independence. Equally, Labour has a lacklustre record in Glasgow. It should use its reprieve by the voters to show what it can do.

Finally, it is worth repeating that the pathetically low turnout in the 2012 local elections is a danger to democracy. Politicians should stop blaming voter apathy and start making our council chambers places to be proud of.

Politicians are manipulating Leveson

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and six other ministers have been granted “core participant status” at the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics. This gives ministers advance sight of witness statements. Doubtless the government hopes the move will give it time to prepare spin… sorry, a defence against the sort of surprise e-mails that have threatened the career of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. It will also give ministers the ability to ask that certain information is not made public. They should not try that.

Once public inquiries were about discovering facts, as when the Titanic sank. Later, with a judicious framing of an inquiry’s terms of reference, they became a way for politicians to bury unpalatable truths in legal jargon. Iraq comes to mind. But with Leveson, now in its 17th week of reality television, we have entered a new and dangerous era.

The Leveson Inquiry is being used in a way that is at odds with its original brief and status. That Leveson has shone light on the darker corners of the relationship between politics and the media is a good thing. That it is now being manipulated by politicians who wish to hide behind its formal structures is quite another. Witness Mr Cameron’s refusal to have Jeremy Hunt investigated by the independent advisor on ministerial conduct until Hunt has appeared before Leveson. Or Alex Salmond’s refusal to tell Holyrood whether his phone was hacked until he has appeared before the inquiry. Or were these prevarications more to do with the timing of Thursday’s elections?

Leveson is tasked with making recommendations on the future of press regulation. It has no powers to hold politicians to account. That remains the task of Westminster and Holyrood.