'Bolshie' Billericay set for battle

Click to follow
Four years ago the beaming smile of David Amess as he held Basildon on the night of the 1992 general election told Labour they were not going to win.

A few weeks later, the Conservatives swept the board in the local elections, taking an unprecedented 10 seat majority on the 42-seat council. Mr Amess joyously pronounced "the death of socialism in Basildon".

But next month in Basildon - where Wayne bought his council house in the 1980s and Sharon wore a gold ankle bracelet and white stilettos - the opposite may happen. The council could become a Tory-free zone.

All the pressure is on the Conservatives. They are defending all but one of the 15 seats up this time - half of them the fruits of their gains in traditional Labour territory in 1992. Four of the Tories' most senior councillors, including the group leader, Peter Patrick, are standing down in an air of some bitterness, Mr Patrick complaining it was "galling" to be turfed out last year - leaving Labour the largest party in a hung council - after the Tories had cut Basildon's council tax along with its budget.

In addition, the party has split locally over a long-drawn out argument over whether Billericay and Wickford, traditional Tory heartlands to the north of Basildon, should move out of the borough. The local people want that, the Local Government Commission recommended it twice, but John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, turned it down. Traditionally blue seats in Billericay and Wickford have gone Liberal Democrat and the remainder may do so on 2 May. Even Mr Patrick concedes that a Conservative wipe-out in a fortnight's time is "feasible, though I think it's unlikely. We should hold Billericay, but people are so bolshie I just don't know what they are going to do." No one seems to doubt that Labour will be in control.

Basildon is bustling, but the recession hangover remains. Unemployment is still above the national average at 10 per cent, and some of those who bought property even three years ago are still in negative equity.

And there is anger over the defection of David Amess MP to Southend West despite boundary changes which should make the seat marginally safer. "How can a man make a record saying "I love Basildon" and then desert? He can't be worth two bob," said David Ayres, a local estate agent.

On the doorsteps, canvassers report less anger against the Tories than last year, more resigned disillusion. And Conservative hopes are bolstered by some signs of disillusioned activists like Liz Cooksey returning to the fold. She said: "we used to have a great organisation in this ward, but now there's nothing". Without much enthusiasm, she is setting aside doubts over the NHS and rail privatisation to rejoin "because there's an election coming up".

John Potter, the Labour group leader, who last led the council in the 1970s, is confident of victory. There will, he says, be an element of "punishing the Tories" on 2 May. "But it's also, I think, because we can offer hope for the future."

Basildon council

Political control: Hung, with rotating chairs.

Labour 15

Conservatives 13

Liberal Democrats 12

Vacancies 2.

Fifteen seats being contested: 14 previously Conservative held, one Labour.