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Are you local?

Since our beloved Prime Minister chose to avoid going to the country in Autumn 2007, it does not seem hugely likely that he would call a general election in 2008. So, it seems likely that 2008 in British politics will be more interested in local elections than anything else. We have the interesting challenge of the London mayoral elections. This may yet prove to be a more open and interesting contest than it appears.

To be honest, the Conservatives, by choosing Boris Johnson, have essentially admitted that the game is up. Although the gaffe-prone and disorganised Henley MP- we are told- is also possessed of finely tuned media antennae, the same could be said of Charlie Caroli. In fact, as at the Ealing Southall by election, it is the weak judgement of David Cameron that fixed on Boris as pretty much the only figure prepared to take on Ken Livingstone. Boris Johnson can not win the London election.

Ken Livingstone, however, is increasingly embroiled in his own problems. The disgraceful "friendship" he struck up with the odious Hugo Chavez - the authoritarian ruler of benighted Venezuela- has asked questions about Mr. Livingstone's judgement, and quite frankly his probity. It is by no means certain that Mr. Livingstone, despite being able to shake off other recent criticism, has clear answers to what, prima facie, looks like foreign funding of his office, through the "Venezuela Information Office", funded by Chavez. If Mayor Ken proves unable to provide satisfactory explanations for the various movements of money, then he will face unrelenting pressure. Being a political "cheeky chappie" does not give license for corruption.

So, the media, this time, will certainly give more notice to the Lib Dem candidate, former police Chief, Brian Paddick. I have only met Mr.Paddick once, but was exceptionally impressed. He is not a politician, but he has presence and ideas. Doubtless the hostile press will emphasise what they see as his negatives: "gay cop" or "soft on drugs", but most people in London accept that the current drugs policies have not worked well, and that new and practical ideas are needed. As far as sexuality is concerned, in one of the most tolerant cities in the world, it is probably a plus. Brian Paddick is an informed and interesting candidate. In the face of the comedy act between Boris and Ken, I think Brian Paddick will do extremely well- London could certainly do with more of his can-do spirit.

As far as the broader local elections are concerned, the outlook is by no means clear. The Conservatives will be looking to make further gains, but they have gained so much in the last decade, that it may prove difficult to maintain forward momentum, which would prove pretty inconvenient from the point of view of the national electoral cycle. It may be hard to feel that the party is poised to take power were they to make minimal progress in real elections (whatever happens in the opinion polls). Of course the same applies to the Lib Dems, but in this case expectations are fairly low, so in the battle of exceeded expectations, there could be a slight advantage for them.

The Prime Minister argues that 2008 will be the key year for British politics. he may be right, but he may not even have that much time. If the perceptions on the locals are bad, the sense of inevitable doom may gather around his administration. yet if labour did unexpectedly well, the pressure could return to the Conservatives. The race remains tight. The Liberal democrats will then come under very strong scrutiny: in a hung Parliament, what would Nick Clegg do?

He had better have a very clear answer. For the Liberal Democrats, a hung parliament is as much a challenge is it is an opportunity. The political weather that decides the Lib Dem strategy is being formed now and over the next six months: the 2008 locals will be hugely important.

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