'Every street, square, and home is Labour'

Elections/ council whitewash
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TELL DENIS MURPHY, the Labour leader of Wansbeck District Council in Northumberland, that he is Britain's luckiest politician and he sighs. "The Labour Party round here are not the peaceful, harmonious bunch everyone seems to think they are. You should come to some of our meetings," he says.

After Labour's overwhelming victory in Thursday's local government elections, Mr Murphy, a 46-year-old former miner, has found himself running an administration with no opposition. The last two Liberal Democrat councillors in Wansbeck, who had battled the ruling Labour group since 1987, finally lost their slender majorities last week.

Now, all 46 members of the local authority are Labour. And the clean sweep is not confined to the north east. Representatives of the people's party fill every seat on Ashfield District Council near Nottingham, too. Mr Murphy is quick to celebrate the fact. "I cannot remember two council whitewashes like this in all my 25 years as a member of the Labour Party," he said. "It's magic - the best news for Labour in years. I knew here we would beat one of the Lib Dems, but I had my doubts about the other.

Just think, every street, every square, every home is Labour."

Labour councillors in the former mining town of Ashington, at the heart of Wansbeck, which is home to 62,000 Geordies, insist that from tomorrow, it will be "business as usual". But there will be marked changes in the town's municipal buildings. All Labour group meetings will become, in effect, council meetings; all 35 committees and sub-committees will have a Labour chair, a Labour vice-chair and be composed entirely of Labour members; and horse-trading will cease. It is hoped.

Not so the cut and thrust of political debate, insists Mr Murphy, who is quick to deny claims running a council without an official opposition will be dull. "Boring? No way," he said. "We have all shades of opinion here in the Labour group, from the traditionalists who opposed Tony Blair's Clause IV arguments, to New Labour types like myself, to people who could pass for Liberal Democrats on a good day.

"In the past, I've often had more trouble from my own party than I have from the opposition. I am not expecting a quiet life. There's no row like a family row."

George Todd, one of the Liberal Democrats who lost his Bedlington West seat, says the election result is bad for local democracy. "Even though there were only two of us as an opposition in the past, we did act as a restraint on some of the daft things that Labour proposed."

Inside Story, pages 18, 19