Ring in the New

Jack O'Sullivan sounds out councillors in Castle Point and Trafford

Castle Point is to New Labour what Basildon was to the Thatcherism. Here in Essex, the centre of commuter sprawl east of London, Tony Blair's party is arising phoenix-like from nearly two decades of electoral failure. The Tories, who had held virtually all the council's 39 seats since 1976, were nearly wiped out on 4 May. Now there are 34 new Labour councillors, and only five Tories.

The new party voters have chosen is very different from the one they rejected for nearly two decades. Indeed, the local party has led change nationally: Castle Point party tabled several motions at the Labour Party conference to reduce the union block vote before the move was accepted in 1993.

The local party recognised that it had to change. The area has Britain's highest proportion of home-owners - 84 per cent - although it is predominantly working class. Robert Waller, the electoral geographer, described it as a "utopia of the property-owning democracy".

Roy English, 59, Labour group chairman, said "Most people used to come into the party from a union background. Now they come from charities, pressure groups and residents' associations. They come out of the society that they go on to represent."

Michael Robinson, senior partner in a City law firm, is typical of a new Labour mentality. He joined the party in September. Last night, he became chair of the finance committee. "We won't be going silly," he says.

As our poll shows, most of these new Labour councillors (66 per cent) voted for Tony Blair and in favour of revising Clause IV (76 per cent) Their other views are more surprising. Four out of five want the union- Labour link weakened further: some want it to disappear. "I don't want the unions bringing down another Labour government," says Linda Carter, 47, a homecare assistant.

Two thirds are happy with Tony Blair's decision to send his son to an opted-out school. "I don't believe in sacrificing children on the altar of dogma," says Kevin Williamson, 42, a senior teacher. And just over half would disagree with raising taxes for those earning over £35,000. "Ordinary workers can earn that much", said one councillor. "New Labour" is the favoured banner of 52 per cent, followed by 44 per cent preferring plain Labour.

More than 160 miles north-west of Castle Point, in Trafford, Greater Manchester, a different picture emerges.

Our survey indicates that only six of Labour's 30 councillors were first elected on 4 May. So most are pre-Blair. Our findings show them agreeing with Castle Point on Tony Blair (68 per cent voted for him) and Clause IV (81 per cent for reform). They are also as antagonistic as their southern counterparts on the idea of sharing power with the Liberal Democrats.

A host of issues, however, separate the parties in Castle Point and Trafford. Only a minority in Trafford (43 per cent) wants the union link weakened further. Fewer than one in five want income tax raised for middle-income groups. Three quarters feel happier with being called Labour, compared with one in five who like "New Labour".

Until May 4, Trafford was Britain's last Conservative metropolitan council and retained a old-style selective system of state education. Now it is a hung council with Labour the largest party, committed to creating comprehensives. This local battle, perhaps, partly explains why 62 per cent of the group was unhappy with Mr Blair's choice of school for his son.

Overall, our poll suggests that Labour's freshly elected councillors - especially southern ones - are more at home with Tony Blair than are their established council colleagues.

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