Case study: Reading
Numbers: Labour 29, Conservatives 10, Green Party 5, Lib Dems 2.
Change since last local elections: Labour -1, Green Party +2.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: Reading is a town in Berkshire with a long and proud history. In the eighth century, it was called Readingum and the occupants of the settlement were an Anglo-Saxon tribe known as Readingas. Generally, it has been relatively prosperous. But the English Civil War was a difficult time, the Roundheads mounting a siege. Reading Borough Council was established in 1974. It has been a unitary authority since 1997 – usually under Labour control, though the Conservatives seized power for three years from 1983 during the Thatcher heyday.
At the last General Election, Reading East was held by Labour with a majority of nearly 6,000. Yet in 2005, that constituency had be gained for the Conservatives by Rob Wilson and he held it as recently as 2015 with a majority of 6,520. Labour’s majority last time was higher than it had been in 2017. Reading West is a Conservative seat, represented by Alok Sharma, the President of COP26, who had a majority of 4,117 last time. Boundary changes are due to abolish both seats. There will one Reading constituency (which Labour would be expecetd to win) with some wards in Reading going to a new Earley and Woodley constituency – and others to a new Mid Berkshire constituency (both of which the Conservatives would be expected to win).
Results: In the EU referendum, Reading voted Remain by a very clear margin – 58 per cent to 42 per cent. This is a town of youngish, mostly affluent, ethnically diverse, eco-friendly, social liberals who were susceptible to David Cameron’s charms. But they are less in sympathy with the Conservative Party as it is now. It is a very unequal town in terms of income – with several pretty impoverished districts.
The town is a melting pot of nationalities. Sir John Madejski, the owner of the football club, staunch Conservative and benefactor to many local good causes, had a stepfather who was a Polish Second World War airman. There are many Poles in Reading. Also many Asians – including a community of retired Gurkhas.
Reading University has grown in size and this has had a particularly detrimental electoral impact on the Reading East constituency. In recent years Corbynistas have shown great zeal in signing up students to vote. The expansion of the sector has also seen more academics – both tutors and a burgeoning number employed on assorted academic “projects”.
But there is also a thriving private sector. Information Technology is a big source of employment – including Microsoft’s UK headquarters and other big firms. But where are the micro IT firms? The insurgents. The disrupters. No doubt the talented young nerds have plenty of ambition. So why are their entrepreneurial dreams not realised more often? Government policy should move away from a corporatist approach suited to big business and offer more incentives to start-ups. John Redwood has written about how useless the Local Enterprise Partnerships are. Abolishing them and instead offering targeted tax cuts to help new businesses during their first year would be more effective.
Home-ownership is another huge issue. Some former Londoners have bought in Reading – while commuting into the capital. That has pushed prices up. A lot of the new homes being built are flats, rented out for the young to enjoy the “thriving night time economy” – rather than houses with gardens for families to buy and settle down in. The owner-occupation rate in Reading is well below the national average which – as I noted last week in the context of London – puts the Conservatives at a disadvantage. The Minister of Justice is selling Reading jail. That may provide some new housing. Though it may also become a hotel, art gallery, theatre, a restaurant, or various combinations of the aforementioned. It would be good to get on with it. The building has been derelict since 2013. There are plenty of other opportunities for selling surplus public sector land and buildings.
Next year will see “all-out” local elections as a result of changes in ward boundaries. Some of those I spoke to feel the Conservatives could make some progress. The Green Party have been campaigning actively which may split the socialist vote. The Labour Council has engaged in financial mismanagement and failed to fill potholes. The boundary changes are expected to bring forward some new blood among Conservative candidates with the old guard standing down. Rather more vigorous campaigning may result.
There remains a broader challenge. Why do so many of these young people with a love of freedom – filled with ambition to become capitalists and homeowners – not see the Conservative Party as the natural choice for them? A lot of them are clustered in Reading. But there are plenty more elsewhere.