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Inside the Lib Dem and Labour assault on Tory commuterville

As England goes to the polls in the local elections, the Conservatives are under threat in southern Blue Wall seats.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Twenty years ago I was invading Iraq in a Suzuki Jimny painted yellow.” Mike Forster, 50, a former Army officer, is still in yellow today: a Lib Dem rosette. In a uniform of Chelsea boots and chinos, he traverses his new battleground – the willow-lined lanes of Sandhurst, a town in Berkshire synonymous with the military training school.

Before Brexit, and over the two decades he spent in the Army, Forster was a Tory. “For me, the Tories had a fairly decent offer at that time, then they went la-la, the headbangers got in, they lied themselves to death over Brexit.”

In 2016, after the EU referendum, Forster joined the Lib Dems. Now, as chairman of the Bracknell Forest Liberal Democrats, he’s running for council in Sandhurst. A nucleus of the Tory shires, this is where the Conservative council leader and his deputy have seats, representing a town hall that’s been blue since “Noah rolled off the ark”. All the seats in Bracknell Forest are up for election on Thursday 4 May. At the moment, Conservatives hold 37 of 42, while Labour holds four and the Lib Dems one.

Knocking on the doors of multi-chimneyed former senior officers’ houses with names like Badgers Rest and Squirrels Leap, and driveways that resemble Audi dealerships, Forster is trying to make history. His mission is to persuade voters – like those in the neighbouring borough of Wokingham, where the Lib Dems now lead in coalition with Labour – to finally move on from Tory rule.

Bathed in robin song and the hum of electric hatchbacks, even this wealthy enclave of the Home Counties has succumbed to the Blue Wall blues. Residents complain about their local surgery, which is in special measures, the potholes, and sewage flooding a local park, scout hut and allotments – polluting the river Blackwater and a swimming spot called Horseshoe Lake. “What happened to the swans – have they been cleaned up?” asked one distressed retired woman the moment she opened the door.

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“When they really need the state – when the roads fall apart or their mum or nan needs social care – that’s when these people get angry,” Forster told me.

“The Tories are scoundrels!” remarked another resident, her head popping up from where she knelt potting in her flowerbed. “I think we all need a change.”

[See also: Who’s afraid of a Lib-Lab coalition?]

Bracknell Forest is a quiet slice of commuterville. Like many here, living on the M4 corridor with Reading, London and Heathrow nearby, Forster is a commuter – travelling into central London to his job at a data company when he’s not working from home. It’s a “fairly wealthy place, with sharp bits of poverty”, he told me. The Lib Dems have the best hearing in the borough’s poshest neighbourhoods, such as Sandhurst, and are optimistic about their chances in these places. A similar trend has been emerging in nearby Windsor and Maidenhead and West Berkshire.

Why? Partygate and the collapse of propriety in government is a factor. Labour’s transformation is another, meaning people are no longer afraid of what would happen if the Tories lost. “A lot of them didn’t vote for us in the Corbyn years, most people were wavering and went down on the side of the Conservatives because Corbyn was a step too far,” said Forster. “Now, that threat’s gone – Keir Starmer is not a threat. People have got to be comfortable that the centre left and the left aren’t lunatics.”

Election watchers, like the local election expert and Tory peer Robert Hayward and the New Statesman’s own Ben Walker (who runs Britain Elects, the UK’s largest poll aggregator), suspect Labour is supporting the Lib Dems more directly here, too.

There are rumours of a pact between the local Lib Dem, Green and Labour candidates: in 12 of the council’s 15 wards, only one of the three parties is standing candidates. None of the 15 wards have Labour rivals to the Lib Dems. This is very unusual, though tactical voting is becoming more of a theme in local elections. There are also explicit local pacts elsewhere, for example “South West Surrey Compass” (an alliance of Lib Dems, Labour, Greens, a local residents’ party and independents), which won Waverley Borough Council off the Tories in the 2019 local elections. This group is running as an alliance in the upcoming election.

Bracknell Forest Lib Dems, Greens and Labour figures deny a formal pact. But they concede that they have all decided to focus on where they have the most hope of winning this time round. Asked about negotiating with the Lib Dems, Mary Temperton, leader of the Labour group, laughed, “No, I haven’t got time to worry about that, that’s not national policy whatsoever, so I daren’t even think about that!” Temperton represents Great Hollands North, a suburb of Bracknell town 15 minutes’ drive north of Sandhurst.

The Labour politics of Bracknell new town, built to house Londoners after the Second World War, have long faded. When Margaret Thatcher let people buy their council houses, residents’ voting patterns “changed overnight really”, recalled Temperton, who has been involved in local politics here for over three decades. In a county that voted to stay in the EU, Bracknell backed Brexit.

But today Labour is buoyant again. Temperton sounded optimistic about “quadrupling” her group of councillors, and said there is “more up for grabs” electorally this year because of demographic change. Like other suburban and satellite parts of the south, people moving out to commuterville are bringing their political values with them.

“Because we’ve got new houses and it’s cheaper to live here and commute to London, many of the younger people who have moved here do not have the same allegiance,” said Temperton. “These are young families or couples or single people who have moved here from London, and they’re more interested in who is going to benefit their environment and make their community better.” Labour hopes to exploit this pattern in other suburban areas and commuter towns across the country.

In Sandhurst, as the sun dips beneath the pines that shade its potholed streets, Forster knocks on his 3,400th – and last – door. As a local children’s cricket club coach, he has a match to get to. The woman who answers hasn’t decided which way to vote. “We’re getting short-changed, the Tories have been in for a long time, they’ve got very comfortable, and we think we could do a better job,” Forster told her. “So vote for us – we’re a jolly good bunch of chaps!”

[See also: The election watcher’s guide to 4 May 2023]

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