This morning on the way to work I did my civic duty and cast my vote in both the General Election, and also for our local councillor in Arborfield, as thanks to our unitary authority this is the one year in four when the people of Arborfield actually get to vote on local issues.
In Arborfield the vote is pretty well a straight rerun of the vote four years ago with the incumbent Tory, Gary Cowan, running against a Liberal Democrat, Steve Bacon, who was the local councillor beaten by Cowan thirteen years ago. As last time the only other candidate is from UKIP, Labour don’t even bother to field a candidate.
Sadly the campaign is also a rerun of the previous efforts with the sitting Tory producing leaflets spouting the most ludicrous claims about Liberal Democrat policy locally – this years gem being that the Liberal Democrats want to put 12,000 houses into the Garrison SDL. Bear in mind that taking the average household size of 2.36 that would be a population almost as big as Wokingham itself crammed into the Garrison SDL, at a density equivalent to some of our major inner city areas. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats have much the same policy towards Arborfield as the Tories – as one of the biggest potential brownfield areas in the borough it is a much more attractive location for houses than the other much more greenfield SDL’s, so even if a new government drops housing targets it’s more than likely that Arborfield would still be a prime site – and a careful reading of our Tories flyers show that he doesn’t say that housing won’t come to the Garrison site even if the numbers are scaled back across the borough. Sadly our one and only local councillor is also executive member for local and regional planning, so whilst his campaign leaflets bang on about him putting Arborfield first, second and third, he has a Wokingham wide view through his executive role, hence on occasions he can’t answer questions from his voters because they might compromise his executive position, and repeatedly he turns up in the press highlighting the next stage of the plan, only to object to the same plan in his role as local councillor.
Whilst there is a good deal of anger across the village, especially after the meeting earlier in the year where Gary refused to answer questions, Arborfield is one of the safer parts of one of the safest Tory councils in the country (Tories hold over 75% of the council, and even if they lost every ward today they would still be in control) I’m doubtful whether even that level of anger could swing the ward. Ironically though from e-mails I’ve swapped with our local councillor he seems a lot more pessimistic – indeed when his fifth flyer of the campaign popped through the door, following on from Redwood himself going door to door earlier in the week, he does seem increasingly desperate and unsure of his core vote. The count starts at 2pm tomorrow, so we’ll have to wait until then to find out if he was right.
By far the more interesting campaign though is for the constituency.
The Wokingham area was one of only thirty in the whole country that have been continuously represented by one party since the 1850’s. Our current MP is the well known John Redwood. Considering how safe the local council is people often assume that the constituency would be equally safe but it isn’t. The fact is that Redwood isn’t nearly as popular locally as he should be given the area, indeed his share has been steadily falling, and at the last election he could have been beaten had that Labour and Liberal Democrat vote combined. Into this mix comes Mark Ashwell, a local businessman standing as an independent. Traditionally independents don’t do well, but being well known locally, on the ground at least he seems to be making headway. Travelling around Wokingham you see vastly more Vote Ashwell boards than for any other party. He has also managed to grab a lot of good headlines in the local paper, and the various polls the local paper has run give him surprisingly high totals. Indeed the online bookmakers have cut his odds over the course of the campaign indicating that a good few people think he might win.
Considering the comparatively low majority that Redwood has, even a modest showing from Ashwell could cause a major upset, especially if a goodly number of disgruntled Labour voters swap to the Liberal Democrats. Whilst realistically the most likely outcome is still for Redwood to take the seat, albeit with a reduced majority, Ashwell has the possibility to either cause a major upset by taking enough of the Tory vote to let Prue Bray, the second placed Liberal Democrat candidate last time, and Liberal Democrat PPC this time in, or even more spectacularly by taking the seat himself.
There is the potential for things looking rather different tomorrow morning. Could Wokingham become a lone Liberal Democrat seat in Berkshire? Or might we be one of the few constituencies in the country to return a true independent? Now we wait to find out…