Britain Votes: How Labour killed campaign

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The Independent Online
MILTON KEYNES - new town, New Labour council and new election tactics.

A referendum on the level of council tax virtually killed off the campaign. The February plebiscite ensured council tax, normally the hottest local issue, has hardly featured.

Milton Keynes became the first UK council to hold a referendum on council tax levels. Voters were told services would have to be cut, and the depth of cuts depended on the council tax rise they would vote for. Of the three options the lowest rise (5 per cent) and highest (15 per cent) were rejected when, over a 19-day postal and telephone poll, 70 per cent of voters chose a 9.8 per cent increase, one of the highest rises in the country.

It is likely there would have been a rise anyway. Faced with a population that has grown from 40,000 in 1975 to 200,000 today, the town continues to attract 4,000 new residents a year. Funding from central government, based on two-year-old population statistics, fails to provide resources for about 5 per cent of the population.

By asking the people of Milton Keynes to choose their council tax rise, Labour robbed the Tories and Liberal Democrats of a favourite line: Labour are a "tax and spend" party.

Irene Henderson, Liberal Democrat group leader, said: "The referendum was weighted in a way that produced the predictable answer. If you voted for the lowest rise it was pestilence, disaster and disease, and obviously people weren't very keen on the highest rise. On the doorstep the word most commonly used by people is `blackmail'."

The Conservative group leader David Hopkins said: "I think people are confused by the fact that ... the Government then slapped the council on the wrist for setting a council tax rate considerably above the proscribed limit of 4.5 per cent."