Reading: a barometer for the resurgence of Cameron's Tory party

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Indy Politics

In the heavily populated counties around Greater London three towns have councils controlled by the Labour Party. By tomorrow, only two will remain.

Reading, the former county town of Berkshire, ought to be Labour territory, with its council estates, a substantial number of private flats in the town centre, and thousands of public employees. But the question is not whether Labour will retain majority control of Reading Borough Council, but whether it be overtaken by a resurgent Conservative Party? Labour's inevitable demise will leave Slough and Luton as the only towns within commuting distance of London with councils under majority Labour control.

Ten years ago, the only visible Conservative presence in Reading was in the parts of town where smart detached houses have gravel drives, but recently it has spread to the city centre, where people live in rented accommodation, a place where hardly anyone said they voted Tory in the 1990s. "We have got a lot of younger members since David Cameron has taken over," said Andrew Cumpsty, director of a London PR company, who is hoping that he is about to become the council's new leader. "I'm 45, and until recently I was seen as a young hopeful. Now there are more people in the local party younger than me than older. That has been a positive step forward. We have groups out canvassing in every ward."

Opponents accuse the Conservatives of being deliberately vague about what they would do for the town if they get into office, relying instead on Mr Cameron's popularity, Gordon Brown's unpopularity, and the row over the 10p tax rate to boost support. Their election manifesto is less than 300 words long.

Mr Cumpsty disputes this claim, saying that they have been fighting on local matters, but adds: "Gordon Brown is a huge issue that has been playing very, very badly for the Labour Party. That has really kicked in in the last three weeks. It reflects the media coverage around the 10p tax, and I don't think his personality is playing particularly well. As Chancellor, that dour personality worked, but as Prime Minister, it doesn't."

Gareth Ebbs, leader of Reading's Liberal Democrats, is not saying which of the two parties his group will put into power next week. He complains that Labour councillors have developed bad habits from running the council for too long, though the impression he gives is that his party would prefer to deal with them than with the Tories. But he conceded: "It would be perverse to do something that went massively against the grain of the electorate."

When the post-mortem is held, Reading's Labour councillors and former councillors should be able to insist that it is not their fault they were defeated. The Independent's own random and unscientific sampling of local opinion in Reading's main shopping area turned up relatively little hostility to the local council. Verdicts on their record ranged from "they have looked after Reading very well" – from a middle aged mother – to "they're totally useless" from an elderly man with a grouse about the volume of traffic passing his house. The nearby M4 motorway disgorges hundreds of vehicles an hour, many of which pass through Reading on their way to somewhere else. A new traffic scheme set up by the council in 2006 had to be abandoned, at a cost of £1m, and the problem has been farmed out to an independent commission.

But Tony Page, a Labour councillor for 35 years, says the core Labour vote is still there, and that habitual Labour voters are not hostile to the Prime Minister; only the waverers or the ones who were never going to vote Labour are, he claims.

Last year, Labour saw its total vote drop by only 150 across Reading, though that meant saying goodbye to a clutch of council seats, when about 3,000 extra people turned out to vote for the Tories. If Reading is typical of the nation, it seems that the Government's problem is not that it is losing loyal supporters; it is that Mr Cameron is attracting new ones, while Mr Brown is not.