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7 June 2004

In Cambridge, the red oak of Labour risks withering

By Ewan Jones

I am in Cambridge to observe at first hand Labour’s preparations for a contest it enters with low expectations. Many predict that the elections will be an opportunity for voters to give the government a midterm bloody nose. Has the great red oak of new Labour really become severed from its roots?

Historically, Cambridge is a liberal city. Anne Campbell has held the parliamentary seat for Labour since 1992, and at present enjoys a majority of more than 8,500. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have control of the council.

Tricia Wright is campaigning to retain her council seat in the Petersfield ward. “I’m out here today to try and show the voters that the Lib Dems simply aren’t in touch with the people. They simply aren’t interested in community developments.” She breaks off to walk down the driveway of number 36, but then catches sight of a sign. “Ah,” she notes, and crosses off another potential convert with the note “SOLD”. The list is dwindling rapidly: number 42 bears the annotation “ALZHEIMER’S”.

When we finally meet with an open door, I am ready with my questions. “Which party do you feel is most representative of your point of view? How do you plan to vote in the forthcoming elections?” And, well, that’s it. Next to each potential voter, we mark down a set of preferences: L for Labour; S for the Lib Dems (or “for silly buggers”, as Wright informs me); C for Conservative, in the lone case – a grinning, tousled student.

For many of the potential voters I speak with, there is a striking lack of separation between local and national issues. Ignas Bednarczyk first lived in Cambridge in the mid-1960s, and currently resides in the Petersfield ward. He describes himself as politically “middle-of-the-road”, and claims that national issues influence the way he votes locally. “The Iraq war is relevant to the local elections, because it showed a lack of consultation. I was originally for the removal of Saddam. Now, like everyone else, I’m concerned for the outcome.”

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Sarah Barnes, a 17-year-old Petersfield resident, seems unenthralled by the prospect of casting her vote in future. “Obviously, I can’t vote in these elections. But even if I could, I’m not sure I’d choose any of the candidates.” For Barnes, Labour’s 1997 triumph is a fading childhood memory. “I do dimly remember Blair first getting in, and my parents celebrating. Even though I was very young, it felt more relevant then, to be honest.

“People talk about giving younger people the vote. But I can’t see what difference that would really make, unless the young people are actually engaged with politics anyhow.”

For the local councillor, the blurring of local and national can be a burden. Interestingly, the leaflet we distribute makes a specific point of distancing the local candidates from the government’s policy on Iraq: “Tricia, Ben and Kevin [Labour’s candidates for the ward] all supported Anne Campbell MP’s decision to vote against the invasion of Iraq without UN support.”

Does Wright feel that Labour is out of touch with the grass roots? “I do feel that there’s a hugely decreased amount of consultation, from the top downwards. That’s why I’m affiliated with a policy forum currently trying to get our voice heard more.” Despite never identifying with the idea of new Labour (“I thought it was the spinniest thing ever”), she is realistic enough to perceive the lack of suitable alternatives. “Well, I mean, they’re still social democratic, aren’t they? They’re still the only party trying to move things forward.”