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FEATURES - MAYORAL LABOUR OF LOVE

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Things are hotting up between candidates in the Bedford mayoral polls, says Lucie Carrington ...
Things are hotting up between candidates in the Bedford mayoral polls, says Lucie Carrington

When the people of Bedford go to the polls to vote for the borough's first elected mayor next month, it could prove another upset for New Labour. Given this year's local election results, Labour doesn't stand much chance of winning. However, with four independent candidates standing, including a disgruntled - now former - Tory county councillor and the chairman of the local paper, which has been highly critical of the borough council, the field is wide open.

The candidates are talking about how they will improve local transport, clean up the town and encourage investment. But the real issue is the state of the town hall and borough politics. After nearly a decade of a hung council, they argue that if anywhere is ripe for the strong leadership of an elected mayor it is Bedford.

'Everything is topsy turvy,' says Frank Branston, mayoral candidate for the Better Bedford party and chairman of the Bedfordshire on Sunday. 'There have been all sorts of peculiar alliances that do not make sense.' Several years ago the Tory group was all set to go into partnership with the Liberal Democrats, when six of their number decided they would work with Labour instead. It was not until the last elections that the renegade Tories came back into the fold.

The Labour group has not fared much better. Many of them, including Labour group leader Shan Hunt, are completely at odds with national and local party policy and some are still fervently opposed to the idea of an elected mayor.

Then there is the litigation that has involved senior officers over the past few years. This includes a corruption scandal and more recently a libel suit, which saw the borough footing the bill so that the chief executive and two other officers could pursue a personal libel action against Bedfordshire on Sunday and a local Tory official.

It proved to be another issue that divided political friends and united political foes amid accusations that officers rather than elected members were controlling the council. A petition was started and Bedford's Labour MP, Patrick Hall, who was opposed to the council funding officers' legal bills, even raised it in the House of Commons. So bizarre did the situation become, says one local Tory, that at one point Mr Hall found himself 'sitting in the local Conservative office while the Tory agent drafted literature for him'.

Some local commentators say this case was the final straw. It has also added impetus to the idea that an elected mayor must bring the council to heel. Tory candidate Charles Rose insists that his unique selling point as mayor would be the fact he has never been a borough councillor.

But some Tory councillors are upset that Mr Rose has apparently described them as 'tainted', and others favour a cross-party cabinet, unlike Mr Rose.

The other candidates are not going to have an easy ride either. Many councillors and allegedly senior officers are still opposed to the idea of an elected mayor. Despite the referendum result and the show of unity at the launch of Labour's mayoral campaign, even the candidate Apu Bagchi, a councillor himself, admits some of his party colleagues are still actively opposed to having an elected mayor.

Rumours are rife that some councillors are already planning their campaign to hamstring the elected mayor. There are apparently plans afoot to limit the mayor's full-time salary to£25,000, although mayors elsewhere are earning in excess of£50,000. Finally there are concerns that councillors intend using their powers of scrutiny to block the mayor once in office.

But perhaps the biggest dilemma facing the newly elected mayor will be the state of their mandate. Bedford is one of the few mayoral elections that have come to pass as a result of a public petition and the public voted two to one in favour of a mayor. Even so only 16% of people chose to vote in the referendum.

Candidates try to play this down. 'The turn out is the turn out,' insists Mr Rose, while Mr Branston maintains that even if more people had turned out for the referendum, it would still have gone in favour of the mayor. But the fact remains that electing a mayor has yet to capture the hearts and minds of local people.

Mr Bagchi says: 'From the doorstep campaigning we have done it seems that people are not against it but they are not over enthusiastic either.'

What is more, people do not understand the voting system. Mr Bagchi views this as a national rather than purely local problem and blames his own party leadership. 'I'd like to have seen a bigger steer from central government. If they had said that by October 2001 every town and city should have had a mayoral referendum and let the people decide, then there would have been much more of a ground swell feeling around.'

As it stands, Mr Bagchi believes that the first two years will be crucial for the future of an elected mayor in Bedford. 'If in the first two years the mayor can make a difference then we will have a genuine feeling that things can be done,' he says.

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