Conservatives face local polls backlash over recession
WALSALL, Britain |
WALSALL, Britain (Reuters) - "We're not 'all in this together'," grumbles Mark Franks, a 50-year-old public sector worker, echoing a frequent complaint made by those who question the government's promise to spread the pain of austerity equally.
"It's always the poor that get the rough end of the stick," says Franks, one of many voters unhappy with the Conservative-led government as Britain heads into nationwide local authority polls on Thursday.
"They are making all these cuts, but we're not seeing any growth," he says in Walsall, a town of empty lots and peeling paint in the British Midlands. "Every week you come here and another shop has closed."
With the polls offering the first official gauge of public opinion since Britain fell back into recession, Walsall - where the local authority, like the national government, is run by the Conservatives with support from the Lib Dem - is one of many places the opposition Labour party hope to win.
"It will be a tough night for us," said a Conservative party source close to the leadership.
It has already been a hard year for Prime Minister David Cameron - steering Britain into recession, admitting his austerity plan will take two years longer than first thought, and struggling to contain a scandal over his government's relationship with Rupert Murdoch's media empire.
Barring expectations of a victory for the goofy but popular Mayor of London Boris Johnson - who covets Cameron's place - the local polls are expected to deliver more grim news to the Conservatives which could bode ill for them at the next parliamentary election due by 2015.
"The local elections will be a referendum on the coalition - I expect the coalition parties to take a considerable battering," said Simon Lee, a University of Hull academic who has written books on the governments of Labour's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as well as Cameron's coalition.
British governments learn stoically to accept slumps in popularity between parliamentary elections as voters channel their dissatisfaction through less significant regional polls.
But with the economy contracting since last year, the Conservatives have faced a serious dent to their credibility, which if underlined by losses in Thursday's local polls, could further undermine confidence in their economic policies.
Millions of voters across England, Scotland and Wales will choose 5,000 new councillors - who control local planning and spending issues - in elections for 180 regional administrations.
Turnout is notoriously low in such elections making their results treacherous to interpret, but heavy defeats at grassroots level can be a bad omen and difficult to reverse.
Big losses for ruling parties at parliamentary elections in 1979, 1997 and 2010 followed similar local election swings.
Only a year ago, the Conservatives confounded expectations in local elections, but times have changed. Opinion polls put Labour about 10 points in front of the Conservatives.
"When you lose the reputation for economic competence and your figures fall below those of the opposition - that's the danger point, the tipping point," said Lee, the academic.
One of the few factors which may minimise the damage nationally is that the Labour party has yet to find its feet just two years after being defeated in a national election.
Though it will claim it was right to insist that the government's austerity plan was too harsh, its leader Ed Miliband has yet to convince, ridiculed for an awkward manner unsuited to Britain's personality-driven politics.
"The lead Labour is enjoying now is quite soft. They are leading because they are not the Conservatives, people aren't necessarily thinking that Labour would do much better," said Justin Fisher, a professor and expert on political campaigns at Brunel University.
And in London, polls suggest the scruffy but charismatic Johnson will see off a challenge from Labour's former mayor Ken Livingstone, cementing a Conservative hold on the capital that will help build electoral support for 2015.
But in places like Walsall - which may prove to be one of the big grassroots battlegrounds - hardly anyone has been left unaffected by the economic slump.
Once a proud industrial heartland, the West Midlands is home to pockets of the highest rate of unemployment in Britain and, despite extensive taxpayer-funded regeneration projects, Walsall has struggled to flourish.
"The austerity cuts are having a huge effect - we're being cut to ribbons. All the majority of folk around here want to do is to work and support our families and pay our bills," said Kevin Till, 51, a part-time driver in Walsall.
(Reporting by Matt Falloon; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
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