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Local elections 2019: Bedford’s three-party contest will be a Brexit bellwether

In a town where parties are minded to work together, the result will depend on who voters want to punish for the Brexit chaos.

It’s four weeks until voters go to the polls and Sue Oliver is taking the steps two by two, carrying a supermarket bag full of leaflets. “Local elections are great – they get you lots of steps on your pedometer,” she says as she heads to the Labour offices in Borough Hall, a giant 1960s concrete bloc by the River Great Ouse. Oliver leads her party’s group on Bedford Borough council, which is currently in the hands of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Among Labour’s councillors is Mohammed Yasin, who took the country by surprise when he became the MP for Bedford in the 2017 snap election. He defeated his Conservative opponent Richard Fuller by just 789 votes. At 3am on the night of the count, Oliver recalls Yasin coming up to her and saying: “I think I might have got it. The counting officer just winked at me.”

It was a rare year in which Bedford did not reflect the national general election result. Like other parts of London’s catchment area, its shift leftward is partly down to young professionals moving out of the capital and taking their voting habits with them. The town is traditionally a Tory-Labour marginal, and during crunch times student activists are bussed in from nearby Cambridge to help the Labour campaign. The last local elections in the borough in 2015 churned out 14 Labour councillors, 15 Tories and nine Liberal Democrats.

What gives the Liberal Democrats an enduring foothold is that Bedford is one of just 16 local authorities in the UK with a directly elected mayor. A favourite policy of Tony Blair’s, elected mayors were introduced in 2000 because he thought they helped people identify who was locally accountable. Their post is vested with considerable power. No matter how many councillors are elected from each party, the mayor in Bedford can choose between four and eight of them to appoint to his or her cabinet.

The Liberal Democrat incumbent Dave Hodgson has been in post since 2009, and no one has much hope of unseating him. For Labour’s candidate Jenni Jackson, who was only selected in February, chances are slim because the mayoral area stretches beyond the urban boundaries of Bedford into the unfriendly territories of Conservative MPs Nadine Dorries and Alistair Burt.

As for the Tories, who picked their candidate Giovanni Carofano a year ago, “a number of government own goals” are damaging their prospects, according to their council group leader Stephen Moon. “A general impression of incompetence is turning a lot of people off all parties, but us in particular as we’re in government.”

From the doorstep, all three parties report the same frustrations over Brexit, which unite voters no matter whether they backed Leave or Remain. It’s what most people talk about when asked which way they’ll vote on 2 May. Martin Reddy, 55, a social worker, voted to Leave and wants Labour “to back a deal which allows us to remain in a customs union”. Lesley King, 67, a retired teacher, voted to Remain but stresses that the parties must come to some resolution: “Like everybody else, I want something to be done”. 

Nationally, the Conservatives are trying to avoid talking about Brexit by making the election about local issues, but their attempts are unlikely to find favour. Moon says that people have always use local elections as an outlet to vent about national policies. He recalls canvassing as a Conservative council candidate in Camden in 1982. “The Falklands War had started and for the first two weeks, people on the doorstep were saying: ‘We aren’t voting for you. Mrs Thatcher, she let the Argentines in. Two weeks later, after the fighting had begun, they were saying: ‘We are voting for you. Mrs Thatcher, she’s standing up for us.’ All I could think to say was, ‘None of this is anything to do with the bins’.”

Bedford MP Yasin, who is standing down as a councillor this year, says that while Wesminster politics does frequently come up, residents are also concerned about health services, public transport and high streets. “We’ve got a really strong united team in Bedford Borough – I’ve been really proud to get out and support the candidates.”

To do well, all parties are hoping to cut through to the untapped voter base of EU citizens, particularly the town’s 12,000 Italians, many of whom descend from labourers who came to work in the brickyards after the Second World War. Just under 10,500 EU citizens – including 3,700 Poles and 2,300 Italians – are on the electoral register, although they tend not to turn out to vote. “They’re either not sure how the system works,” Oliver says, “or they think: ‘We don’t trust politicians at home, why should we trust them here?’”

But it’s not clear what parties can do to convince previously reluctant voters to go to the polls. Hodgson predicts that “turnout will be massively depressed because people are so frustrated with politicians. I’ve never known it as turbulent as it is now.” He says anger about the Brexit chaos is compounded by the fact that in the past decade, local authorities have suffered savage funding cuts. According to the National Audit Office, councils have had their budgets slashed by nearly 50 per cent in real terms since 2010-11.

In spite of that, Bedford Borough Council has avoided closing any libraries or children’s centres. It has brought the running of residential care homes back in house and pays staff there the Living Wage. It’s a remarkable success story compared with the neighbouring Conservative-run Northamptonshire county council, which was bailed out by the government at the end of last year. “They even stopped gritting roads in the winter for a period,” Hodgson says with dismay. “But that doesn’t seem to be horrific enough for the government. We are very keen not to be anywhere near the edge so we keep very tight control over our budget.”

In all likelihood, when morning breaks in Bedford on 3 May the competing parties will once again have to cut a deal. None of them are bothered by this: Hogdson, Oliver and Moon all agree that politics is far less tribal locally than nationally. Moon says that he’d much rather not have to represent the Tories at all. “The demands of local government are quite different and ought not to involve party politics,” he says. Oliver says she disagrees with the pushback she gets from some Labour members against working with the Lib Dems. “We’re not defeatists, we’re realists,” she says. “On balance, you can get more done by being there than on the outside.”

What makes Bedford interesting for election watchers is that it has turned into an ultra-marginal seat, its majority shrinking streadily in the last six consecutive general elections. In the Brexit referendum, it mirrored the national mood exactly, voting to leave the EU by 51.8 to 48.1 per cent. Its results this year will serve as a useful litmus test of whom swing voters are minded to punish for the political chaos.

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.