Feature: New Labour, old tactic

Labour campaigners hope pointing to ‘Tory cuts’ in Conservative-run local authorities will help their defence of key marginal seats. The tactic may not be as straightforward as they think.

By Alex Stevenson

It’s a clear theme emerging across the country in seats where Labour MPs facing tough fights live side-by-side with Conservative councils.

David Cameron once gave a speech telling voters to judge the Tories not nationally but on their performance in government locally. The 2010 general election campaign, like many of its predecessors, will be dominated by Labour attempting to turn this on the Tories.

One Labour MP in exactly this situation sums up the logic: “You don’t have to wait for a general election to see what will happen in a Conservative government – you can see what’s happening locally.”

That comment comes from Vernon Coaker, the MP for Gedling in Nottinghamshire. It’s a measure of the Tory threat that Coaker, the schools and learners minister, is being drawn into a tough fight. His 8.6 per cent majority in the 2005 election places him 90th in the list of Tory target seats. This is the kind of seat the Conservatives must win if they are to establish an overall majority. Both sides recognise it’s a seat of crucial importance.

The Tories have been doing well in Nottinghamshire recently: last June they finally took over control of the country council. Coaker argues It’s a measure of the zeal with which they approach the need to make cuts that they have made such quick progress.

“Nobody’s pretending it’s easy at the present time,” he says. “But what makes Nottinghamshire such a real target is because of the glee with which they seem to have entered into this.”

Two care homes have already been sold off. The threat of job losses at Gedling borough council is causing “big uncertainty”. The decision to begin charging for residential parking schemes is prompting “huge anger”. And this, campaigners insist, is just the beginning.

Labour’s response is predictable. Several Tory candidates across Nottinghamshire are on the council. Coaker’s challenger, Bruce Laughton, acts as a deputy Cabinet member across the environment and sustainability and transport and highways portfolios. ‘Laughton votes for residential car parking charges’ – and similar leaflet slogans – can be expected throughout the campaign and across the county.

This approach matters most in Gedling, the county’s biggest marginal. But the pattern is being repeated across the country. In the Medway towns of Kent, for example, Labour are taking the fight to the Tories over the closure of local primary schools.

Jonathan Shaw is defending the rather shaky 2,332 majority he took in 2005. His website is adorned with a picture of him surrounded by sad-looking children holding a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Save Ridge Meadow Primary School’ emblazoned across it. He has called the Tory-run council’s decision to close the school “cynical”.

“The decision to close both St John’s and Ridge Meadow schools shows clearly the Tories are not interested in local people,” he says. The Tories remain proud of their council in Kent; its 14-24 innovation unit has set up 25 vocational centres, in a bid to confront local youth unemployment.

In the east of England, armed forces minister Bill Rammell is fighting in Harlow against Essex county council. It has just announced a tranche of job losses and a deal to privatise IT services.

“He’s campaigning hard to show people what Essex county council are up to,” a spokesman said.

Another example of the Tory-hunting trend is Nuneaton. Here it’s the threat to local fire services which is fuelling Labour’s campaign. Eight fire stations are set to close, meaning half the fire engines and one in three firefighters are set to go. “They’re basically downgrading our service,” Labour’s candidate says.

The set-up is the same: retiring Bill Olner’s replacement, Jayne Innes, is defending a notional majority of nearly ten per cent – but a real majority of just five per cent. She’s seeking to gain as much mileage as possible out of the activities of the Tory local authority – in this case, Warwickshire county council.

“People actually ring me up and request copies of the petition so they can go and do their street,” she says, demonstrating the strength of feeling against the changes. In her seat she’s managed to persuade 7,000 people to sign up; across the county 30,000 names have signed their names. The fear is that West Midlands, the next-door local authority, will cease its vital assistance to Warwickshire’s efforts.

“We’re keeping the pressure up,” Innes adds. She’s aware there’s a real risk the Conservative-controlled council will seek to limit the electoral impact of the scheme by dragging its collective feet. “What we need to be very careful is they go into the general election kicking this into the long grass. We’ve got to fight it now.”

Tories on the defensive

In London, Conservative central office sticks adamantly to Cameron’s pride about Tory councils. They point out many local authorities have good stories to tell.

Wandsworth has the lowest band D council tax in the country and is delivering “excellent local services at the same time”.

South Norfolk and Breckland district councils have recently signed an agreement to merge back office functions, saving thousands of pounds but protecting frontline services.

And in Windsor and Maidenhead, a recycling scheme is being piloted which incentivises residents instead of punishing them.

The problem is campaigns are infrequently about achievements and frequently about grievances. Yet, in this context, what’s surprising is how many local councillors are adept at defending the records of their local authorities.

Politics is as much about defending an administration as it is about campaigning for the opposition. Some of the councillors I spoke to at a local government conference in north London demonstrated this well enough.

“One’s got to be realistic,” Colin Spence, who like the majority on Suffolk county council is a Conservative, presses.

“This coming financial year is going to be very difficult, but we’re all being warned the year after is going to be incredibly difficult.” His council is engaging in staff cuts, reducing grants to voluntary organisations and introducing long-term car parking charges for its two market towns.

“You can imagine that’s not been received very well, but there is a reality about it and that’s had to happen.” This is the kind of argument designed to blunt Labour’s attacks.

While in the Commons even a mention in passing of the word ‘savings’ or ‘efficiencies’ is met with hoots of derision by the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. But in local politics a more understanding approach is revealed.

“If the Tories get in there will be lots and lots of cuts. But there are going to have to be cuts anyway, so that’s probably the wrong word to use,” Sue Hatton, whose Lib Dems are in coalition on Mid-Sussex district council, says.

“We need to make savings – and that’s what we’re doing as a council, trying to make savings in lots and lots of ways.”

Tory-dominated Wiltshire county council, a new unitary authority, merged from five councils into one last year. Savings of around £17 million have already been achieved which mean “we’re in good shape for the cuts”, according to councillor Laura Mayes.

The Labour government’s common-sense mantra is repeated: “If we can be more efficient, we’re going to get better services for less money.”

Will these arguments wash come general election time? If the strength of feeling among the public is strong enough the answer may be no. In Nuneaton Innes is able to broaden the attack against her rival, Conservative Marcus Jones, because of his year as leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth’s borough council.

He lost £3 million by putting money into Iceland months before the country’s banking crash; ended the playscheme in the town centre; and even privatised the gardeners looking after Nuneaton’s parks.

“Yes, I made difficult decisions as leader of the borough council. But that was in the backdrop of taking over authority that had been run by Labour for 34 years,” he points out. The previous administration had made the Iceland decision, he says. Privatising the gardens had saved the council £400,000. And as for the fire services, Innes’ campaign is accused of being “totally disingenuous”.

“It seems this is a campaign which is designed more for political gain rather than actually looking into the issue at hand, which is the Warwickshire fire services review. Nuneaton will in no way be affected,” Jones insists.

There are also compelling answers on offer from Coaker’s rival, Bruce Laughton. He flatly denies most of Coaker’s claims about Tory cuts, saying that of the £33 million savings £31 million have been “reinvested into adult care and young people’s social services”. This year’s budgetary increase is, in fact, to the tune of £10 million.

Both Laughton and Jones are philosophical about Labour’s approach.

“It’s politically expedient for our opposition to say it is cuts,” Laughton shrugs. “We have taken the moral high ground because we are dealing with the most vulnerable people we’re supposed to be delivering services too.”

Jones, confronting Labour’s campaign about fire services in Nuneaton, says simply: “That’s politics. I’m quite aware Labour are likely to try and do anything to hold on to the Nuneaton seat. It’s up to us as Conservatives to get out there on the doorstep and put our message across in a positive way.”

Yet doing so successfully is far from assured. Nuneaton and Gedling are seats where the Tories are piling huge pressure on Labour. Labour leaflets attacking the council will dominate the election campaigns here. Cameron may not be forming a government in May if candidates like Jones and Laughton can’t confront – and beat – Labour’s council-focused attacks.