Voting For A New Britain: Hague finds little comfort in wavering heartlands

Local Elections

THE PARTY grandees may have set William Hague the target of making a net gain of at least 1,000 seats in tomorrow's council elections if he is to have a future as Tory leader, but the omens do not look good in Hertfordshire, one of the Conservatives' traditional heartlands.

There is evidence of a move back to the Tories but not so much in the marginal seats and there is little to suggest that the Tories will get the kind of swing back they need for Mr Hague to start regaining councils.

Labour and Tory strategists agree that the Conservative vote is coming back where it has been strong in the past. "The Conservative impact is in their heartlands," said Andrew Dodgshon, the Labour Party area organiser, while the Conservative area campaign director, Marion Little, said: "The existing Conservative vote is hardening." She said the party had hopes in the marginals: "I think we have everything to play for in Hertfordshire. Labour is going to find it hard to get their vote out."

The county is a good barometer because all seats are up for election after boundary changes. One of the 10 district councils is now held by the Conservatives - Broxbourne. Of Labour's six, the Tories must win three and two more that are effectively "no overall control" but with strong Liberal Democrat groups, to re-establish the pre-1995 status quo.

The Labour strongholds of Watford and Stevenage are hopeless causes for the Tories as is the Liberal Democrat stronghold of St Albans. Mr Hague's best hopes will be in Hertsmere, East Herts, North Herts and Three Rivers.

But the real acid test will be Dacorum, which straddles the urban mix of Hemel Hempstead, the towns of Berkhamsted and Tring, and a tract of rural villages. The scenic Grand Union canal bisects the borough. Home Counties it might be, but this is not a stronghold of unthinking Tory support. The political balance of socially diverse Dacorum is on a knife edge. The Conservatives held the borough for 19 years from 1976 with a comfortable majority. Then in 1995, in a precursor of the swing to New Labour, the borough went to Labour who then held 31 seats leaving the Conservatives 20, the Liberal Democrats 4 and one Independent.

On 6 May it will be almost a straight fight between the Conservatives and Labour in Hemel Hempstead which has 60 per cent of the borough's population.

In the more rural areas the battle will be between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It will be a close run thing. One Labour insider admitted privately: "Whether Labour wins control of the council depends on how many seats the Lib Dems win from the Conservatives outside Hemel."

Interviews in Hemel Hempstead and in Berkhamsted suggested that errant Tories were beginning to return to the fold. "That Tony Blair is a bit smug for my liking," said one middle-aged woman, "I'll be voting Tory this time."

But the Tories are up against a Labour council that has made a mark. It has pioneered a number of anti-poverty and economic development strategies that appear to work. There have been rumours of a Liberal Democrat/Labour pact as the Liberal Democrats are not fighting some Hemel Hempstead seats. But both sides deny any agreement and Labour is fighting in every seat.

Paul Lashmar

Ken Livingstone, Review, page 4

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