The Contest for Luton
One of Anthony Wellsâ€™ contributors described Luton as â€œto be frank, a dump.â€ Having recently moved there, Iâ€™d have to say that while that is probably a fair description of what must be the most badly designed town centre, anywhere in the Home Counties, itâ€™s not a fair description of an entire town of nearly 200,000 people. There is a great deal of good private housing around Wardown Park, Stopsley, the Old and New Bedford Roads, and Stockwood Park, close to the M1. On the edge of the town is one of the most outstanding country houses anywhere in Britain, Luton Hoo, now a hotel.
The local economy has been badly damaged by the closure of the Vauxhall car plant in 2000. Overall, average weekly incomes are Â£36 per week lower than the average for the South East as a whole. This, together with the growth of a substantial Muslim population, has shifted Luton leftwards in recent years. However, given that is a South Eastern town, with excellent road and rail links, there must be a good chance the economy will recover in the future.
Luton is historically marginal, with both seats (or one seat prior to 1974) usually being won by whichever party wins the general election. The Conservatives won both seats in 1983, and held them till 1997, when Labour gained both seats comfortably. Labour pushed up their majorities strongly in 2001, with very similar results in both seats. In 2005, the Labour vote fell sharply in both seats, to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives also slipped back in South, while moving forward slightly in North. Almost certainly, the reason for the big switch to the Liberal Democrats was down to Muslim unhappiness with the Iraq war. Labour has notional leads over the Conservatives of 16% in North, and 14% in South.
Luton matters to the Conservatives. While the party could certainly win an overall majority without winning either seat, it might not be a very comfortable majority, particularly given that the Conservatives seem to be advancing more strongly in the South of England than they are in the North or Scotland. Of the two seats, North is actually the better prospect for the Conservatives, despite the fact that the notional Labour majority is slightly bigger. All of Lutonâ€™s 5 Conservative councillors are located in North, and there are wards in the constituency , located around New Bedford Road, such as Icknield, Bramingham, and Barnfield, which produce a very reliable Conservative vote in general elections. Labourâ€™s strength lies in the wards heading towards Dunstable, such as Leagrave, Lewsey, and heavily Muslim Saints The Conservatives won 32% in the wards making up the seat in May, compared to 37% for Labour, who won 13 seats, and 25% for the Liberal Democrats, who won 6. At Parliamentary level, the Conservatives are the clear challengers to Labour, here.
Southâ€™s recent electoral history is quite different. This seat takes in most of the town centre, as well as the former Vauxhall car plant, and the airport. There is also one ward from outside Luton, Caddington, Hythe and Slip End, which produces the sole Conservative councillor in the seat. Mayâ€™s local election results gave 35% to Labour, who won 14 seats, 30% to the Liberal Democrats, who won 10, and 22% to the Conservatives, who won 1. However, another 13% went to small, mainly left-wing parties, and many of them would probably vote Labour in a general election. The Conservatives did not field a full slate of candidates here, and it is hard to see them mounting an effective challenge in a general election. While in theory, the Liberal Democrats might appear to be in a position to challenge Labour, in practice it will be difficult. South has a very large Muslim population (about 18% of the total), and while Muslim voters switched strongly to the Liberal Democrats in 2005, there are signs that many of them have moved back to Labour since then. Labour ought to be able to hold this seat, unless their support really does collapse.
There were three by-elections last night:-
Elmbridge Borough – Cobham Fairmile: Conservative 418, Lib Dem 45, Labour 38, Independent 32, Independent 18, Monster Raving Loony Party 9. Conservative hold, despite a strong challenge from the Loony Party, whose best days seem to be behind them.
Kerrier District – Helston North: Conservative 315, Independent 226, Independent 194, Mebyon Kernow 115. Conservative gain from Independent. It is hard to know what to make of this, as the ward was uncontested in May.
Rochdale Borough – North Middleton: Labour 603, Lib Dem 566, Conservaitve 280. Labour hold. There was however, a very strong swing from both Labour and the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats.
Sean Fear – PBC Poster of the Year 2007