Tories dig for town hall dirt

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The Independent Online
The Conservatives are targeting Britain's town halls for the next general election, asking Tory party members to dig up negative material on their councillor opponents.

A memo leaked to the Independent on Sunday, from David Trowbridge, head of the local government department at Conservative Central Office, invites the party faithful to send material on their opponents, in particular "interesting committee reports or minutes before they have appeared in the local press - as this makes it more likely that the national press will use them".

The Tories hope Labour and Liberal Democrat councils will reveal the "true" face of their parties and what they would be like in power.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats suspect the Tories will try to expose embarrassing differences between the grassroots and headquarters.

Mr Trowbridge's circular, headed "Council Watch" and sent last month, says: "We would like to reiterate the importance of this material - which, if we receive it soon enough, we can pass on to the national press."

It adds: "Group leaders may wish to appoint a councillor whose specific job it is to keep Central Office informed about interesting developments."

In another memo, also leaked to the Independent on Sunday, the Tories plead for "any information from authorities controlled by the Liberal Democrats".

Its author, Peter Campbell of Central Office, asks for details of the cost of Liberal Democrat initiatives "and of any criticisms which they have encountered in their local areas".

The memos have been sent out with a briefing paper called "New Labour: New Dangers in Local Government". At the same time, Labour council leaders around the country have received letters from senior local Tories which start the same way and follow the same format. They all begin: "In his speech on local government on 23 July, Tony Blair confirmed three ways in which the council tax would rise under New Labour.

"Taxpayers in [your area] would like you to tell them precisely how much their local taxes would go up if Labour win the next election."

After that opening, each letter, signed by a local Tory council leader or prospective parliamentary candidate, contains paragraphs on Labour's proposed abolition of capping, the release of frozen capital receipts and creation of new regional tiers of government and elected mayors.

This last policy, the letters argue, would create a "new bureaucracy" - conveniently forgetting that Michael Heseltine was a great proponent of elected mayors when he was Evironment Secretary from 1990 to 1992. The letters end, "I am copying this letter to the press," without mentioning that they are copies of a format supplied by Central Office.

The Tory move comes as Labour is trying to clamp down on its councillors, asking them to be wary of answering telephone calls from the national press which could see them speaking off-guard and opposing party policy. Labour has become concerned about surveys in the national media purporting to show rifts between local activists and the leadership.

In a briefing note from Labour headquarters, councillors are asked to check with national officials before answering.

A Central Office spokesman said the leaked memos were part of the Council Watch campaign launched by the Prime Minister last year to check on Labour and Liberal Democrat town hall "excesses". "We want to build up banks of information to help the effectiveness of our campaigning," he said.

Forged letters, page 6