Election focus: Gedling

Local council politics are likely to dominate in the crucial swing seat of Gedling come the general election.

By Alex Stevenson

This Nottinghamshire battleground is expected to be one of the closest in the East Midlands region. Vernon 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.

Coaker’s challenge is Bruce Laughton, who during the days of Conservative opposition on the county council shadowed first the finance and then the environment portfolios. Gedling’s borough council fell to Labour in 2007; two years later the county council followed.

“The individuals within the constituency are intelligent, understanding voters,” Coaker’s challenger Bruce Laughton says. “They will vote with their head and not with their heart.”

Yet both sides are striving to position themselves on the right side of this dilemma. Coaker, despite his ministerial duties, spends most Fridays working his constituency hard. He is making the Tory-run council the centrepiece of his campaign, pointing to the £83 million in planned cuts on the local council to make his case. Laughton’s close association with the council makes this target all the more tempting.

“You’ve got a number of the candidates in Nottinghamshire who are also their Tory county councillors,” Coaker tells politics.co.uk. “So we will run a campaign which will be about that. We’ll put the guy on the leaflets – ‘Bruce Laughton votes residential car parking charges.'”

Gedling is, in Laughton’s words, “your archetypal swing seat” full of “archetypal swinging voters”. The inhabitants of its three main conurbations, which surround the dormitory town, are mainly blue collar workers – but there is a fair mix of white-collar there too. In the 2007 campaign to get a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, the Electoral Reform Society sent out 48,000 ballot papers – and got nearly 50 per cent back. To sum up: “They engage.”

In Laughton’s view they have been engaging with the wrong party for too long. This traditionally Tory seat had been held by Andrew Mitchell, now the shadow international development secretary, until John Major’s landslide defeat in 1997. Mitchell was to return to parliament in 2001, but to Sutton Coldfield rather than his old seat. “People were voting Labour because they felt we were less able to provide what they wanted,” he admits. Now local Tories believe the wind is changing. “We’ve swept in and taken control.”

It is precisely that change which Coaker is seeking to harness to defend his seat. “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 [the Tory-run council] seem to have entered into these cuts.”

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.

Laughton flatly denies most of Coaker’s claims about Tory cuts, saying that of the £33 million savings already made, £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.

“It’s politically expedient for our opposition to say it is cuts,” he 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.”

It seems the Tories’ best response to Labour’s anger about the management of the council is to refer voters back to the situation when they took over.

This, Laughton claims, was appalling. Twenty-five years of Labour rule had left the council very “badly run”. Matters were “in a state of flux, putting it politely”. Among other problems, a £12 million shortfall in young people’s services existed. He claims £175 million of identified capital projects didn’t even have business plans. And, worst of all, council tax had gone up by 150% since 1997.

The Tories have, of course, frozen council tax. Laughton says it is now so high some constituents have been forced to move home because they can’t afford to pay it. He claims Nottinghamshire is the highest council-taxed county in the country. “It’s untenable – we can’t continue to charge people extra money,” Laughton protests.

Coaker, uninterested in these arguments, claims that around a third of the money the council is ‘saving’ at present could be saved with a two or three per cent rise in council tax. The Tory refusal to consider a 50% top rate as part of the overall deficit reduction plan is part and parcel of the same issue.

“You need those tax rises. They’ve chosen this ideological position to say we will not have a council tax rise. The consequence of that is [Tory cuts].”

Laughton says his campaign is “ebullient” in response to these arguments, but Coaker’s strategy is being echoed up and down the country by Labour MPs faced with Tory councillors.

“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,” Coaker says.

All the more reason why the campaign in Gedling is worth following. It’s a microcosm of the national campaign, where engaged voters will be deciding which distinctive approach to back.