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Local elections 2019: Tory blues in Theresa May’s “one-party state” of Maidenhead

Building work, Brexit and blue-on-blue council rows are deflating Conservative enthusiasm in the Prime Minister’s patch of Berkshire.

They’re knocking Maidenhead down. This is the main observation you hear in the affluent Thames Valley market town of Berkshire, southeast England.

And you can see it everywhere. Whether walking up the high street, by the river’s tributaries, or into the town centre from the station, Maidenhead is currently a patchwork of the rubble and roar of construction.

Flats, offices, renovated public spaces, more flats, a bowling alley and leisure centre are all on their way. They’re part of the council’s plans with developers to keep up with rising demand in this commuter-belt outpost just a 20-minute train ride from London at rush hour.

On the M4, with the M40 up the road, and a 20-minute drive to Heathrow, Maidenhead is a great place to live, if you are always leaving it.

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This practicality separates the town from its more picturesque Thameside counterparts, like Henley or Marlow.

While houseboats float lazily among raucous geese on the main river, whose banks boast a Michel Roux restaurant at the Skindles hotel (once an infamous venue for illicit affairs), the town centre is not built around the water.

“We haven’t had a focus really in Maidenhead,” says Richard Kellaway, Conservative councillor here since 2007, and chair of the local Conservative Association.

Theresa May has been MP for Maidenhead since the constituency’s creation in 1997.

“There’ll be a bit of a square there,” Kellaway says, pointing at various construction projects taking place around the austere Sixties town hall. “More of a congregating area, and that will go down to the water, as a focus.”

Kellaway, 73, was brought up in nearby Reading and used to work in the oil and chemical storage industry (“boring business is really good!” he laughs).

Dressed in a red, blue and white checked shirt under his v-neck, complete with blazer, loafers and cords, he looks every bit the Shire Tory, though he is gently mocking of that world. While he has long been a Conservative, he only made one attempt at Westminster in the Seventies and laughs about it now.

“I’d been given this advice,” he says, putting on a plummy accent – “‘Oh, dear boy, you know, you’ll fight some dreadful places, and then it’s safe seats, old chap.’”

Instead, he ended up a councillor in the second safest Conservative constituency in the country, with a 26,457 parliamentary majority.

With three grown-up children and five grandchildren, and as one of 47 Tory councillors out of 57, he’s decided not to stand again in the local elections in May.

“I’ve had 12 years, and it does grind you down really,” he says, when we stop for cappuccinos at a bar on the water.

He describes running a council as “grappling with a greasy pig, trying to get to grips with it, it’s a kind of sprawling. We do everything, from roads to social services to children to housing, so it wears you down.”

He has lived in Maidenhead since 1978, and is frank about its challenges. “Our problems are coping with the people,” he says.

People come to live in Maidenhead and work in London or the “Silicon Corridor” tech companies stationed at the eastern end of the M4. Adobe, Tesla and Three have offices in Maidenhead.

It’s a particular tension for a Conservative council in an 83 per cent greenbelt, 70 per cent floodplain borough. “We are nibbling at the greenbelt,” admits Kellaway.

“We see criticism for approving flats and things, but they’ll mainly be in the centre, they’ll be sustainable as lots of people will hopefully not need a car; they’ll use the railway station,” he claims.

Crossrail, a long-awaited train line in the southeast, could see a 40 per cent increase of passengers in Maidenhead. They won’t all live in the town, but more will have to park by the station to commute, so Kellaway and his fellow councillors are building another carpark at the town’s entrance.

While the transport links are attractive, the prices are less so. It’s expensive here. “If you’re looking for teachers and nurses and things, the cost of living here is high,” says Kellaway. “We’ve tried to counteract this by having the lowest council tax in England outside of London.”

Yet council tax has seen recent rises after years without a hike, with the most recent increase at 2.99 per cent this year.

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On 2 May, the whole council is up for election. The number of seats will be reduced from 57 to 41, apparently for efficiency reasons. The authority has only ever been held by the Conservatives or Lib Dems, and there are currently zero Labour councillors and one Lib Dem.

Last time round four years ago, the Tories won a stonking 54 out of 57 council seats, riding on the back of David Cameron’s majority in the 2015 general election – the votes were held simultaneously.

However, they have since lost a handful of councillors who quit to become independents, following council leader Simon Dudley’s attitude towards rough sleepers in Windsor during the 2018 Royal Wedding (accusing them of “aggressive begging” and a “voluntary choice” to be homeless, and ordering police to remove them). He won a no-confidence vote following the row.

Other Tories left to sit as independents too, citing issues over the leadership and planning. Three former Tories formed a new party, The Borough First, which is aligning with independents and fielding 25 candidates in almost every ward to “break the current Conservative Monopoly”.

Its leader Claire Stretton, who crossed the floor from the Tory group in 2017, called the council leadership “an effective dictatorship” and accused it of “a corruption of power… supported by patronage and party discipline”.

Labour is also boldly running a full slate, in an area where the local party never even used to campaign – preferring to send members to nearby marginals, for example in Reading.

Now the Constituency Labour Party of around 440 members is turning out at least once a week, either for doorknocking, litter-picking, volunteering at the foodbank or other community action, says its secretary, Vicky Worsfold, a librarian who works in London and has lived here for eight years with her husband and 11-year-old daughter.

“If I was to make a guess, I’d say there was going to be a drop in the Tory vote, though I’m not sure how many people will transfer their vote to Labour or other parties,” predicts Labour’s election agent, Clive Lattimer, a 71-year-old in a purple polo shirt who wears an earnest expression through his silver aviator-framed glasses.

We meet with other Labour party members in an artisan bakery looking out onto an offshoot of the Thames. Across the water is a new housing development: “LAST 2 PENTHOUSES REMAINING” screams a sign.

Lattimer has lived in Maidenhead for 40 years, having grown up in a south London council house in a poor family. Making money working in electronics and manufacturing control, his working-class values still haven’t left him. He got to where he was because of “opportunities from the state” via social services, and he sees that being stripped away. “No thoughts are being given to that here.”

They detect a decline in enthusiasm for the Conservatives. This is mainly because of a perception of the Tory council as overmighty – particularly in its development projects.

“There’s no soul in Maidenhead, it hasn’t got a heartbeat – it’s like cottage pie without seasoning. Mushy,” smiles Labour chair David Knowles-Leak, 74, who worked in the flat glass trade and has also lived in Maidenhead for 40 years. “It’s a building site with an aggressive history of flogging off the family silver wherever and whenever it can be done.”

He accuses the council of “building a dormitory for people who don’t live in Maidenhead, and there’s a shortfall of housing for people who live here on the bottom end of the income scale.”

Maidenhead Golf Club’s displacement for 2,000 new homes is a particular source of anger, which even Kellaway admits has been “controversial”. The club is “ideally placed, just off the motorway, walking distance to the station”, he sighs. “So I’m afraid we’ve encouraged it to move away… People don’t like that, and understandably. But it’s just, we’re almost forced into it.”

Lattimer has been a member of the golf club, which he calls a “Tory ghetto”, for 18 years. “The message I get from people I talk to is that they’re [politicians] out for themselves, and it’s particularly true for this council, this feeling that it’s all graft. This feeling is more amongst the Tories than Labour people.”

He describes his Tory counterparts as “a bit like crows – the crows that would steal other crows’ nuts are the ones that rebury theirs if they’re being watched. There are people who are mistrusting – because they know that’s what they would do too!”

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The Conservative vote also feels punctured because of Brexit. Windsor and Maidenhead opted 53.9 per cent for Remain in the EU referendum. Uncertainty, plus Jeremy Corbyn’s involvement in negotiations, has annoyed residents.

“If the Tories get in, I won’t be happy because they aren’t delivering the Brexit they promised to give us, and if Labour get in they can eff off,” says 44-year-old Mark Meijer, enjoying a drink in the sun outside The Bear pub. Unemployed and seeking work, having left his job to care for his mother, he has lived in Maidenhead for decades.

“Theresa May’s a laughing stock, and now she’s joining with a Marxist – it’s beyond parody.”

He is furious with both the main parties (“I wish Guy Fawkes had succeeded,” he says) but doesn’t know who he’ll vote for. “Perhaps Ukip, and in the European elections, the Brexit Party, as an ‘up yours’.”

One 47-year-old woman tucking into a bakewell tart outside a food shop on the high street describes herself as “a floating voter – one of the ones they hate!”

She works in the local toothpaste factory and fears for her job because of Brexit, and voted Remain. “I have no idea who to vote for, they’ve made such a mess. I’m inclined to vote for someone really random this time,” she says. “Theresa May should’ve stuck to being a local MP, her constituency is vital to Remain and she’s doing her damnedest to get us out. She should be working for me.”

During an afternoon interviewing passersby on the high street and outside the shopping centre, I only meet one who says he’s voting Tory in the local elections – and he hasn’t made his mind up completely.

Although the Maidenhead Conservative Association are “fanatical supporters of the Prime Minister because she’s an outstanding constituency member of parliament”, according to chair Richard Kellaway, he does admit Brexit could affect the local elections.

“Certainly, to be honest, in the last week or so, with Theresa talking to Corbyn, has gone down very badly in the Shires, for obvious reasons. It’s unnerved a lot of people,” he says.

“When they start talking about a customs union, a customs union means we can’t do deals with the rest of the world, which was the whole purpose of Brexit, so that is unnerving.”

He suspects “antagonistic apathy”: that voters “just might not bother to turn out”. “It’s more with people sort of actively voting,” he says. “If you’re a Brexiter, in a local election, I think they might just not bother to turn out, rather than voting – no one’s going to vote for Corbyn!”

Both he and opposition figures are uncertain about the outcome of these council elections, because the previous result was so tied up in the Conservative triumph at the general election. A lot has changed since 2015.

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Despite a deflated mood among Tory voters, other parties I speak to are realistic about hopes of an upset in a borough like this. “It’s a pull-up-by-your-bootstraps, look-over-your-garden-fences” kind of place, says a 27-year-old Labour voter who volunteers for the party. “Corbyn would have to ameliorate the radical politics that he has for this New Labour/soft Tory vote.”

“We’ve not been using the language that connects with people who have exactly the same problems [as Labour voters] who regard themselves somehow as mini-capitalists,” adds the local Labour chair David Knowles-Leak. “So they’ve got a mortgage on the house, they won’t feel well-off, they get by, they think they’ve moved away from being needy but their lives aren’t being enriched.”

The main aim, then, is to try and unsettle what they describe as a “one-party state”. Even Richard Kellaway, who hangs up his councillor’s hat in May, agrees that omnipotence isn’t best for the town. “Last time we had 54 Conservatives elected out of 57 – I can’t say as a Conservative to vote for opposition, but that’s not healthy in terms of democracy.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.