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Westminster watch

Simon Barrow

Working in 'the Westminster village', as many politicians and journalists do, makes for a one-eyed view of life. Which is why, in the BBC television coverage of the recent local elections in England and Wales, veteran commentator Anthony King needed to point out that three-quarters of 46 million registered voters live outside the capital.

From the attention that the London Mayoral showdown received, you mightn't have guessed it. But politics depends on drama and the Boris versus Ken scrap provided it in spades. Even with limited powers, who heads the capital has enormous symbolic power. But so does Labour slumping into third place nationwide, the party's worst result in 40 years.

It's wake-up time, the voters were saying - though with far from one voice. The people who swept the Conservatives to power in many councils were not like those who made the Greens the official opposition in Norwich, abstained in Labour heartlands, or gave the BNP (still a negligible force) its first seats in South Yorkshire.

2010 will be long coming. But with memories revived of John Major's defeat two years after a drubbing in the 1995 local polls, word is that Gordon Brown made the worst decision of his life by backing out of an election shortly after assuming power from Tony Blair. This has been the view of many commentators for ages, but since then things have got a whole lot worse.

It is not true, as some believe, that voters always drift away from the government when the economic tide turns. Most know the 'credit crunch' is a global phenomenon. And the Tories are making gains despite only 38 per cent seeing them as the best option for guarding the national purse. The issue remains, rather, one of trust - which in turn means a sense of unity and direction.

Some more bad news for Mr Brown came in a series of May polls showing that only seven per cent of voters now perceive Labour to be a united force. That's roughly the same number as in 1983, when the party suffered a catastrophic nosedive in popularity from which it took years to recover.

In such volatile circumstances, politicians are enjoined to 'listen' - but to whom? To London? The provinces? The asymmetric influence of Scotland and Wales? A burgeoning commentariat? The increasingly unpredictable art of opinion surveying? Disaffected party members? Grumbling Blairites? Or the High Court, challenging government authority on asylum seekers, anti-terror legislation and an iconic arms corruption case involving BAE and Saudi Arabia?

The breakdown of ideological politics has left a fatal confusion. The new political class that emerged in response to the 1980s earned its dominant position from management, makeover and messaging (or massaging, depending on your viewpoint). It may now have to learn something more about imaginative leadership if it is to survive, in whatever political shape.