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9 May 2008

Stripping the gloss off Reading

Labour's Paul Gittings reports on how just seven days after his party was celebrating a rare glimmer

By Paul Gittings

It’s the most overworked cliché, but as Harold Wilson famously observed a week is a long time in politics and it has taken less than seven days for a little of the gloss to have been stripped off our excellent results in the local elections for Reading last week.

Again bucking the national trend, we held on to key marginal seats, including in my own Minster ward, to form the largest party on the unitary authority with 20 seats to 18 for the Tories and eight for the Lib-Dems.

This was particularly sweet because David Cameron had visited Reading and expressed his confidence that the Conservatives would be running Reading come May 2.

But the dust had barely settled on the ballot boxes when we suffered a high-profile defection as former mayor Tony Jones announced he had left the Labour whip to continue as an ‘independent’ councillor.

Only Tony really knows the reason why he came to this decision, but a cursory glance at his web site reveals his unease at the failure to hold a referendum on the European Treaty, disappointment over the police pay award and condemnation of the 10p tax rate abolition.

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So in as many words, we are not ‘Labour’ enough, which is a common refrain of departing members and one of the reasons that CLPs around the country are fighting elections with an ever-dwindling and under-motivated activist base.

In Tony’s case, I suspect that self-promotion and a perceived slight from the leadership in some long-forgotten wrangle over committee chairs may also have played a part, but we are where we are and I hope that come crucial council votes that he does not abandon his socialist principles.

Because even he must acknowledge that the Labour-run council has been a progressive force, the first to give free passes to pensioners, keeping the award-winning local bus company, of which he has been the chairman, under public control, likewise our housing stock, protecting social care for the elderly in contrast to our Tory neighbours, and re-generating the town with developments such as The Oracle shopping centre.

Which is why the electorate in Reading just about stuck by us last week to give us cause for optimism in the wake of Labour’s worst local election results since 1967.

Ours were not the only good results for Labour in the Thames Valley, with Slough being won back and gains in Oxford, while in the hysteria of Boris Johnson’s victory over Ken Livingstone it escaped most commentators that Labour’s results in the assembly elections were creditable as well.

The notoriously low turnout in local elections make them a poor indicator of general election results, we all remember the poll tax disasters for the Tories in 1990 locals but victory for John Major in 1992, so it is too early just yet to be writing Gordon Brown’s political epitaph.

And based on the Reading experience, I believe we can take heart that when voters are forced to make a real choice on who is representing them, rather than a using their vote as a protest, or not voting at all, they will stick with Labour.

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