Labour poised to reap protest votes

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Education cuts are likely to be a focus for discontent in Thursday's local elections, report Clare Dean and Dorothy Lepkowska.

This week's local elections give voters the chance to register protests against the Government's policies with Labour seeking to capitalise on unrest over education cuts and turn middle England red.

Just as the 1990 local government elections became known as the poll-tax elections, this year's - as education services face cuts of Pounds 390 million - are likely to prove a focus for discontent about school budget cuts and rising class sizes.

Hundreds of Tory councillors have already defected, declaring themselves independent of the parliamentary party.

No counties or London boroughs - all of which are education authorities - will be voting on Thursday and only a third of the seats in the metropolitan authorities - which do have responsibility for education - will be up for grabs.

Attention is therefore likely to focus on the shire districts where more than half the councils are Conservative-controlled and where opposition to education cuts has been among the fiercest.

The spotlight will also fall on Trafford in Greater Manchester, the only metropolitan authority which the Tories control outright. They lost two seats there last year and if that pattern is repeated next week they will lose control of the authority.

Trafford is one of the few in the country which has actually increased education spending this year - by 5 per cent - as well as funding the 2. 7 per pay rise for teachers.

There are also Conservative-led administrations in Calderdale and Solihull, where no party has overall control, and the Tories run large areas of policy in Walsall, another "hung" council.

The Liberal Democrats are hoping to make gains at Labour's expense in the North-west - increasing their influence in Liverpool and taking control of Oldham.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, where parents have been among the most vociferous protesters against education cuts, John Findon is standing for re-election to the district council as an independent Conservative.

"Tory policy on many aspects of public life has been a disaster, and particularly so in education," he said. "In Warwickshire we have seen the closure of many small, rural schools - five of them on my own patch."

Despite standing as independent Conservative Mr Findon plans to remain aligned for the time being to the Tories on Warwickshire county council of which he is a member.

Elsewhere in the country, Labour claimed at least 23 former Conservative councillors were now standing as independents - including seven from Bridgnorth in Shropshire where protests over education cuts have been vigorous.

Shropshire was one of just six local education authorities prepared to set budgets that defied Government spending limits. Other defectors included Henry Callaghan, who has served Thanet District Council in Kent for four years as a Conservative. He is standing as an Independent and said: "The Government has handled education very badly. Headteachers are angry at the lack of funding for the teachers' pay award and rightly so."

But Callaghan agrees with Conservative education policies on other issues, notably opting out: "Those who work at the sharp end know what's best for the schools and the pupils. That is why I agree with opting out. But this expertise works in other ways too, so teachers who complain about the problems of increased class sizes also know what they are talking about."

In Exeter Barry McNamara, the deputy mayor, has defected from the Conservative to the Labour party, after "months of personal turmoil and trying to justify on the streets policies with which I fervently disagreed".

Under-funding of the police force in Devon and Cornwall, NHS reforms and changes to local authority housing procedures were the three main reasons for his defection. But the crunch came when the school at which he is a governor was unable to set a balanced budget, leading to the local authority removing its delegated powers.

Mr McNamara, who does not come up for re-election until 1996, added: "I have not changed my politics but the political parties have. I have to listen to my heart."

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