Labour is running out of friends in the North

Lancashire's voters are so angry with the Government that party leaders have been told to keep away, reports Jonathan Brown
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Indy Politics

It's a generation since Labour took control of Lancashire. When the party swept to victory in the county's local elections of 1981, Britain was in the grip of a crippling recession, Ronald Reagan was the radical new president in the White House, and Spandau Ballet were the hottest act in the charts.

But if this week's local elections have something of a "back to the future" feel about them for the electorate, perhaps it will feel even more so for the Labour Party. Here in the Red Rose county the party is looking over its shoulder with mounting trepidation at a new life in opposition for the first time in many people's political memories.

For David Cameron, success in Lancashire, one of only four county councils remaining under Government control, holds out the delicious proposition of a much-vaunted renaissance in Northern England – a battleground where he must triumph if he is to win power in the general election next year.

To underscore his determination, Mr Cameron has made three visits to the North West in recent weeks. Labour, by contrast, is accused of running scared, with top brass ordered to stay clear of the territory for fear of contaminating the local brand. Labour activists privately admit to a "difficult" campaign, amid a dwindling in the sense of mission that kept them ensconced in power at the rambling Victorian County Hall in Preston for the best part of three decades.

The Valley Centre complex in Rawtenstall, up in the Pennines, is a suitable symbol for the decline of the Rossendale area. Once it was at the heart of what was known as Lancashire's Golden Valley – because of the prosperous cotton and footwear industries. Today the former showpiece 1960s shopping centre, boarded-up and vandalised, is the first thing that greets bus travellers arriving from nearby Manchester and Burnley.

"It makes me ashamed to live here. I am ashamed to invite people to the town," said one lifelong Labour Party supporter as she made her way home past the deserted shop fronts.

Other locals speak of a general sense of abandonment – not just with the continuing presence of the derelict eyesore but with the loss of Woolworths and the recent retreat of the local newspaper from its town-centre premises.

"I used to vote Labour, but now I don't know," said Anne Gregory, 58. "It has really gone down hill over the last five or six years. They don't even grit the roads like they used to."

Not that there is any shortage of collective East Lancs pride here at the moment: the claret colours of neighbouring Burnley FC fly from cars and homes celebrating the club's long awaited elevation to the Premiership. But there are few signs of activity surrounding the forthcoming elections.

Rawtenstall lies within the North Rossendale ward of the Labour leader of Lancashire Council, Hazel Harding.

Ms Harding, who won her seat on the council in 1985, comes from a tradition of powerful women forged in the cauldron of the region's politics: they include former Blackburn MP Barbara Castle and former Lancashire Labour group leader Louise Ellman.

But defending the slimmest of majorities in her own seat, Ms Harding is realistic about Labour chances this week, and faces the prospect of defeat with both sorrow and anger.

"I see the things that we have done and the things that we still want to do – become efficient, move towards greater localisation – and to not have the opportunity, and to see some of the services we have built up lost will be very, very sad," she said.

She insists that Labour has worked harder in this campaign than ever before, defending its 43 seats on the county council compared to the Conservative tally of 33. Labour's majority, now down to four, has been steadily eroded by boundary changes.

Ms Harding says responsibility for the failure to regenerate Rawtenstall's Valley Centre lies with the Tory district council; though Lancashire's multi-tiered local government system makes it hard to get that fact across.

The Labour cause in the county has been hit hard by the ongoing MPs' expenses scandal at Westminster, with local MPs – including Burnley's Kitty Ussher and Rossendale's own Janet Anderson – finding themselves the target of damaging headlines.

Ms Harding, a former journalist, says: "I wanted our campaign to be a local campaign to reflect Labour in Lancashire. Seeing a Cabinet minister or a senior MP swanning through the town – I am not sure that will help."

The man who hopes to succeed Ms Harding in control of Lancashire's £600m annual budget and overseeing services to its electorate of one million, is the former Preston City Council chief executive, Geoff Driver, who is now Conservative group leader.

His party clearly scents victory, not just in the county council but in a significant proportion of the 12 Labour-held parliamentary seats within geographical Lancashire.

When the Conservatives won control of South Ribble district council in 2005 after 12 years in opposition, it was hailed as a turning-point by Mr Cameron, who made the journey to Lancashire to celebrate. The South Ribble parliamentary seat, with its 2,184 majority, now looks a real prospect for the Tories.

Dr Andrew Russell, of Manchester University, believes that this week's results in Lancashire will prove a turning-point for both the Tories and Labour nationally. If victory in the county's rural fringes offered Labour a springboard into Middle England during its long years in opposition, so too it could signal that the tide has finally turned for the Conservatives.

Ballot box: Your guide to voting

European Parliament elections.

The European election on Thursday will be the largest transnational vote in history when 375 million citizens in 27 countries take to the polls. Of the 72 seats up for grabs in the UK, the Conservatives hope to add to the 27 they won on 26.1 per cent of the vote in 2004. The Liberal Democrats are defending 12 seats (14.9 per cent). UKIP (16.1 per cent) wants to maintain its impressive showing while Labour will do well to hold on to its 19 seats (22.6 per cent). The Greens will look to add to their two seats (5.8 per cent). The question is whether the British National Party, fielding leader Nick Griffin in the North West region, will win enough votes – about 8 per cent – to win the party's first seat.

Local elections

Labour controls four of the 27 councils going to the polls – Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire – but is almost certain to lose some to the Tories. David Cameron is targeting two in the Lib Dem stronghold of the South West as well as Cumbria and Warwickshire. There are eight polls in unitary authorities and mayoral elections in Doncaster, Hartlepool and North Tyne- side. Opinion polls suggest the Tories could surpass 40 per cent of the vote and win more than 250 seats, wiping Labour out in key areas. But the six metropolitan counties where Labour support is strong don't vote this year.

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