Elections - Reading the runes

It was a day of records and firsts - none of them good.

The lowest turnout in a national election; the lowest turnout in a by-election outside wartime and the first time, as far as anyone can recall, that a polling station had not a single voter pass through its doors. Not good for democracy.

On the other hand, say the advocates for new police commissioners, there are now - for the first time - democratically elected local leaders to hold the police to account, to advocate local people's priorities and, perhaps, to lobby against national policies - budget cuts or contracting out.

The test, surely though, will be whether people who did not vote on Thursday do in future or wish they had because their local commissioner is seen to make a difference.

What do these elections and the by-elections tell us about who will be the next occupant of Number 10?

Can the votes of a tiny proportion of the electorate in Little Sodbury or Gwent North by North West voting for police commissioners using a different voting system and with so many independents winning tell us anything at all? Can a mid-term by-election? The answer is yes it can tell us several things.

First, the parties of the coalition are seriously unpopular.

The Lib Dems being beaten by UKIP In votes cast in PCC elections as well as in the Corby by-election which may un-nerve their MPs and activists.

The Conservatives lost a seat to Labour for the first time in 15 years in part as they were squeezed by a pincer movement from Labour and UKIP.

To cheer themselves up the Tory leadership points to John Prescott's defeat and their success in PCC elections in crucial parts of the national electoral battleground in the North West, the East Midlands and Wales, but they know UKIP's success will add to the pressure on David Cameron to harden up his euro-scepticism.

Secondly, the electorate are shopping around for ways to protest - experimenting in these elections with UKIP, independents and Labour.

Thirdly, the general election will be determined by who finally secures those votes - a government which says you can't trust Labour or an opposition which says time for a change.

What these elections cannot tell us is whether politics is as it has been for the last three decades since the 80s - where governments can bounce back after mid-term defeats - or whether we'll soon see a return to the politics of the 70s - of one-term governments thrown out of office.

Democracy is changing before our eyes - more elected posts, more voting systems, more choice as the two-party system continues to break down and, above all other things - more unpredictable than ever.

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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