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FEATURES - THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

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Behind the stories of a far-right threat lay more complex scenes of intrigue and milkmen, panic and loyal wives. LG...
Behind the stories of a far-right threat lay more complex scenes of intrigue and milkmen, panic and loyal wives. LGC reports on the surprises and sure-things of the local and mayoral elections

Burnley BC

Varya Shaw

As the count takes place for Burnley BC's local election, the British National Party's candidates are unmistakable.

The men in particular look as if they have been reading up on neo-fascist styling. The party wants candidates to neaten up, but they have taken it further with fetishistic flourishes. One wears dark glasses and a union jack tie. Two others wear real red roses beribboned in red, white and blue in their lapels. The hair is long and luxuriant - no skinheads here.

It is not just their appearance. There is something oddly vulnerable about them. The two winners, David Edwards and Carol Hughes, remain mute even after their victory, and flee the hall trailed by journalists.

Sheer incompetence limited the impact of Derek Beackon, the last far-right councillor to win a seat, in Tower Hamlets LBC a decade ago. The party's latest successes seem to have a similar lack of practical skills, political and social.

Their organiser, Simon Bennett, is more sophisticated. He is confident and remains calm under pressure. He will answer almost any question. The Holocaust, exaggerated? No, it was bad, very bad. But he does not like the way it is used to score political points against the BNP.

Preposterously, he claims the mainly Asian ward of Daneshouse with Stoneyholme, the poorest in Burnley according to the deprivation index, is poor only 'on paper' and is stealing money from the rest of the town.

Mozaquir Ali, Liberal Democrat candidate for Danehouse, seems to know everybody. When, at the count, it is clear he has walked it, his supporters embrace him.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in desultory mood. They will never capture Burnley and news of results elsewhere is not encouraging. Their leader, Peter Doyle, is bemused that he got fewer votes than another Tory standing for the first time.

Labour, who have run Burnley for so long, are humiliated. They may have fielded a full slate, unlike the Tories and Lib Dems, but they have not done enough.

There are claims that the BNP's percentage of the vote has scarcely changed. But according to experts they have gained 26%, up from 11.9% at the general election.

Voters explain why. Sean Ericson, 18, says he's voting to get 'Pakis out'. Why? 'Because they're black. They think they're clever.'

A mild middle-aged couple won't give their names, but the wife admits she has voted BNP. Both believe the money going into Danehouse is administered by central government, that the idea of racial discrimination in favour of Asians by the council is daft.

But the BNP articulates something they feel. The issue is not money, it's 'culture . . . there's too many of them', the wife says.

Only one thing is holding her husband, a Labour voter, back. He fears the party are still troublemakers at heart.

GillianTaylor, Burnley's chief executive, is clear it will be business as usual. Mr Ali articulates the paradox: 'We don't know how to deal with them. We can't not hear them. At the same time we can't take them seriously.'

Oldham MBC

Nick Triggle

A year ago, petrol bombs and burning barricades scarred the landscape of Oldham as race riots broke out. A week later, nearly 12,000 people voted for two British National Party candidates at the general election.

At the time, the BNP promised to return. At this year's local election it has, fielding five candidates in the 20 wards up for grabs at Oldham MBC. It wins none. In fact, you could miss the party's presence altogether.

Oldham, which used to be one of the world's leading cotton spinning towns in its heyday 100 years ago and is now the 33rd most deprived area in the country, becomes

a ghost town on election night.

The odd BNP poster can be seen but these are far outnumbered by Anti-Nazi League leaflets and the ethnic minority community seems unconcerned. A British Asian taxi driver, when asked about the chances of the BNP candidates, says: 'Oh they won't get in. No chance.'

The most noise comes from the anti-racist demonstrations outside most of the six count venues. The council has chosen to split the count up for the first time to bring 'democracy closer to the people'. But this also had the effect of nullifying BNP support and preventing a repeat of the ugly scenes at the general election when the two BNP candidates were stopped from giving speeches.

As the news that the BNP has failed to win a seat filters through, the sense of relief is clear.

Mayor-elect Riaz Ahmad (Lab) says: 'The people of Oldham have firmly slammed the door in the face of the BNP. Hopefully it will get the message and keep away from Oldham. If they had got in it would have done a lot of damage to Oldham and I am glad extremism and racism has not been tolerated.'

But other politicians show more concern about the far-right's performance. Of the five seats the party contest, it is runner-up in four, in one of which it was less than 100 votes away from winning.

In total, 4,391 - nearly 20% - vote for the party. People can be heard at the polling stations saying they voted BNP as a protest vote out of the mistaken belief that areas with a high proportion of ethnic minorities are getting all the money. In fact, the government funds are channelled into the poorest areas, irrespective of the ethnic make-up.

Oldham's BNP branch organiser Mick Treacy, speaking after it was announced he came third in the Hollinwood ward with 24% of the vote, says the party will be back. Mr Treacy, a 40-year-old taxi driver with convictions for theft and deception, said the same thing after he came third in the general election when he stood against local MP Phil Woolas.

Mr Woolas (Lab), MP for Oldham East & Saddleworth, who told people to 'vote Conservative, Liberal Democrat or whoever', says: 'The decent people of Oldham have rejected extremism. I am delighted. The fact they came second in some seats shows we were right to get people out voting. Those who underestimated the BNP vote were complacent.

'But the BNP did target Oldham, it put large resources into the campaign and did not win a seat.'

Indeed, it seems the far-right's presence has had the effect of combating voter apathy - turnout was up 10% to 44% from the last local election in 2000.

Council leader Richard Knowles (Lib Dem) is critical of the media for giving too much publicity to the BNP.

Margaret Kelly (Green), a councillor for Royton North says: 'This is not a victory for Oldham. It is a disgrace. The BNP came second in some seats. This is very sad.'

Doncaster MBC

Esther Leach

Friend and foe alike agree it is an historic moment in the history of local government in Doncaster MBC, but only the mayoral candidates, a handful of supporters and the local press wait around to witness it.

The small army of vote-counters leave without waiting to hear Martin Winter's victory speech as the first elected mayor of Doncaster.

'Is it something I said?' asks Mr Winter (Lab) as he watches the retreating backs and then turns to face a dozen or so cheering supporters in the main hall of the Dome, a sports centre on the outskirts of town.

'They are just tired. It's been a very long night,' a supporter explains as she applauds her leader's success.

Mr Winter who, for the past year, has been leader of the council, still beams with delight.

But it is not an outright win. The count includes second preference votes. In all Mr Winter polls 25,707 votes. His closest rival, Andrew Burden, the council's Tory group deputy chairman, wins 12,170 votes.

Mr Winter's success includes 4,213 second choice votes as he failed to win more than 50% of the first vote.

After the declaration at about 3am, Mr Winter says: 'It feels absolutely fantastic. I am extremely proud tonight.'

Later he says: 'I think the difference between being leader of the council and elected mayor is accountability. It's my head on the block now, there will be no excuses, there will be no hiding place. I've got a very strong mandate and hopefully we will deliver.

Mr Burden congratulates his opponent . 'He's got great power. I just hope Martin uses it properly,' he says.

'I think he will, he's a reasonable guy.'

The council's chief executive, David Marlow, who has been in post for 15 months, says: 'There is immense civic pride in Doncaster and if the mayor is successful I think there is an opportunity for him to give it real meaning.'

Asked what impact the elected mayor would have on his own job, he says: 'If Doncaster can prove the mayoral model then the relationship will change fundamentally in that the public will have a direct accountability for the services they receive.

'My role as chief executive is to ensure the organisation is there to implement those decisions, and the advice the mayor is given is robust and can be delivered.

'I think the honest answer is that no one in localgovernment knows exactly how elected mayors will work successfully with chief executives just because we haven't had them before.'

Newham LBC

Chris Mahony

'Stick around and watch the panic in a safe Labour borough,' invites Unmesh Desai with the slightly sardonic air of a man who has seen it all before.

The 'p' word is used several times as the councillor and ward agent explain to party helpers that the Christians are on the march in several wards, a shock which disrupts my plans to follow Labour mayoral candidate and incumbent council leader Sir Robin Wales in his final hours of campaigning.

The early evening turns into The Hunt for (slightly) Red Robin as he switches energies away from our appointed assignation and into the supposed Newham heartlands of the Christian People's Alliance.

His amiable agent for the mayoralty contest, Alex Kellaway, takes me on a tour of his own Beckton ward, sweeping through the slightly surreal landscape of space-age transport stations and concrete flyovers.

Later at the count Labour activists groan when Independent mayoral candidate Tawfique Choudhury steps up to the microphone, the only mayoral candidate apart from the victor to give a speech. We could see why.

Despite the attempts at populism - council tax cuts and business rate cuts all round - his interview with LGC revealed a verbose and platitudinous streak remarkable even by the standards of campaigning politicians. He finishes second though, albeit nearly 15,000 votes behind.

En route to the polling station Sir Robin phones to report that, due to Christian crusaders in several wards, the planned rendezvous is out of the question.

Fortunately, outside East Ham tube station, imploring commuters to vote, is the stooping, slightly shambolic figure of local MP and former council leader Stephen Timms, now a Blairier-than-thou education minister.

The earnestly pleasant minister apologises for Sir Robin's change of plan and asks a Labour worker to guide me to the nearby party HQ. He thinks the mayoral candidate might turn up there before heading for the town hall.

Labour HQ is easy to find - parked outside is a Merc from which loud hailers urged people in one of the nation's poorest boroughs to get out and vote Labour. Inside is Mr Desai, dispensing fivers to pay for cabs to get people to polling stations while clutching a phone to each ear.

Back at the town hall, an hour before the polls closed the first Anti-Nazi League protestors gather. Even at its peak, the 30 or so protestors are almost outnumbered

by police officers. To the annoyance of the media if no

one else, neither BNP mayoral candidate Michael Davidson nor any of the three council candidates

attends the count.

With the anticipation of a 9.45pm declaration, the hall fills up quickly after the polls close. Leader of the Commons Robin Cook is unfashionably early, presumably sent in his role as Cabinet Office promoter of electoral innovation. He is just one of three ministers, followed by the tireless Mr Timms and the local government minister Nick Raynsford, looking, as usual, like a Cheshire Cat who has bathed in molasses.

The latter agrees to an interview but as we go to

perch against some empty tables, a pair of Newham functionaries charge across to whip the tables away with commendable vigour.

Mr Raynsford bats away reports of a low turnout, suggesting we would have to wait and see. He also dismisses the suggestion that it would be a good thing if, unlike last time, Labour actually faced one or two opposition councillors. Apparently one-party states are only a problem when they appear in the north.

Bubbly local MP Tony Banks turns up to boost Labour morale, playing his usual role of amiable cockney rogue by suggesting the computer count would 'all go pear-shaped'. We were all laughing on the other side of our faces however as 9.45 came and went. Enthusiastic council spin doctors insist the delay is not due to IT glitches but rather over-optimistic forecasts on how quickly the computer 'cartridges' bearing the data can make it to the town hall from all over the borough.

About 80 minutes late the declarations begin and to no one's surprise Sir Robin is the first mayor handed control of a traditional council. He immediately embarks on a series of interviews, interrupted only to welcome declaration after declaration of Labour success. The only exception is Alan Craig's success in Canning Town South for the Christian People's Alliance - ironically not one of the areas highlighted during those final panicked hours.

Watford LBC

Jon Hanlon

There were rumours Geri Halliwell and Elton John were interested in running for mayor of Watford BC but the final contest between ex-milkman Vince Muspratt and deputy head teacher Dorothy Thornhill could not have been more intriguing.

The other prominent figure in what essentially became a two-horse race was Tristram Cooke, the eccentric leader of the Fat Cat Party.

Fat Cat policies include: 'To enforce zero tolerance on the streets of Watford and sweep them clear of all human vermin.'

He also plans: 'To raze to the ground all council houses in Watford and allow their occupants to be sold into slavery.'

He says the purpose of these policies is to satirise right-wing views and left-wing hypocrisy. Though the Oxbridge educated professor is unconventional, Liberal Democrat leader Dorothy Thornhill says he is making some serious points.

She says: 'Tristram and the Fat Cat Party remind us that we are moving into an era of paid politicians. People are going to vote against that, people are going to vote for change. They are dissatisfied with the leadership [of the council]. There are 10,000 people invading our town each week because of all the pubs and clubs. They say this is the Ibiza outside London. We have to stem the tide.

'We also need to rebuild relations with the county councillors [in Hertforshire]. Vince [Muspratt] is not interested in working with them and they hate Watford.'

Ms Thornhill firesoff rounds of policies, which shoot down Labour's Mr Muspratt's preconception that he already had the mayoralty in the bag.

She is enjoying the campaign but is also suffering the inevitable stress. She castigates one of her campaign team for parking inconsiderately, which could lose votes as frustrated drivers file past.

All around Watford, Ms Thornhill can be spotted scooting round corners, waving at drivers, chatting to youngsters and generally whipping up a campaign any prime minister would be proud of.

Mr Muspratt is on the outskirts of town, ensuring the last few Labour voters have been out to vote. He clearly believes the mayoralty is won. On being mayor, he says: 'It is about what power you assume. It is about bringing together the police to focus on crime.'

Mr Muspratt clearly has an affinity with many Watford residents in this part of town. He used to be their milkman so remembers many of them and is greeted warmly by some. But this affinity is not enough compared to Ms Thornhill's campaign back at the polling stations, where she dramatically states she is going to vote for herself.

It is going to be a long night and she says she will watch Bridget Jones's Diary to take her mind off the wait for a result, which does not come until nearly 2.30am.

When the result finally comes in, the Liberal Democrats poll 13,473 in an astonishing victory over Labour, who gain just 5,269.

The turnout reaches 37% and, as part of the single transferable vote system, Ms Thornhill polls 2,519 second preference votes, compared to just 370 for Mr Muspratt.

Mr Cooke and his one-man Fat Cat Party finish last but poll 330 votes - a victory considering Mr Cooke would have settled for just 100.

Ms Thornhill's husband, Iain Sharpe, who is leader of the council's Liberal Democrat group, says: 'This is something we have worked very hard for and I think it's a sign people want a change in the way Watford BC is run.'

Ms Thornhill is whisked away to Liberal Democrat headquarters in Westminster just a few hours after her victory, leaving behind her jubilant campaign team.

Middlesbrough Council

Emma Parsons

Ray Mallon's handshake is terrifying in its strength. And it seems apparent his leadership is going to be terrifying in its ferocity - elected councillors on Middlesbrough Council should be shaking in their boots.

The former detective superintendent has been confident since he first stood for election - when he admitted 14 disciplinary charges brought by Cleveland police so he could be released to stand (LGC, 15 February) - he would be the first elected mayor of Middlesbrough.

From the moment the counting of the all-postal ballot begins he is the clear winner - just a glance as the ballot papers are being sorted shows crosses by his name on almost every one.

In his acceptance speech, he tells the public in no uncertain terms that he will be holding the elected representatives in Middlesbrough firmly to account.

He is undoubtedly talking tough, but why did most of the43% who voted in the mayoral election go for this chap, a man who was suspended from his job with Cleveland police for four years while corruption charges were investigated, and who has been called an 'evil man' by his former boss, the chief constable of Cleveland police?

According to my cab driver, who lives in the nearby town of Darlington, Mr Mallon is seen as a man who gets the job done. His famed zero-tolerance approach to crime has won him a lot of friends. He has managed to persuade people that questions over his past conduct are irrelevant.

Listening to him speak, it is clear why he is popular - his talk of cutting crime and making the streets safe is not burdened by the fact he no longer has any power over the police. But the public does not know that. Electors in Middlesbrough, as anywhere, do not know what powers the mayor will really have - and he has not spelled it out.

'He's a very good orator,' says Peter Barnett, political assistant to Liberal Democrat candidate Joe Michna, who describes the inevitable result of the election as a 'farce'.

'He's good at telling an audience the things they want to hear. People are dissatisfied. Crime and drugs are a problem round here. He gets people going.'

Labour candidate Sylvia Connolly says: 'What he's done at public meetings is to take a big crowd who jeered at people if they asked a critical question. 'So people were intimidated by the atmosphere. I didn't let it put me off, but certainly I went to several meetings where I felt it wasn't in the spirit of the way we work in the town.'

A spokesman for Middlesbrough Council said it would be 'alien to Mr Mallon's basic principles' to purposely intimidate people.

If these critics continue bad-mouthing Mr Mallon in public, he makes it clear they have no place in his council.

Looking fierce and angry as he delivers his acceptance speech, he says: 'The public have given us a mandate for change and change they will have. I give you a cast-iron guarantee that every councillor will do their job properly.'

Speaking to the press after the count, sounding paranoid and control-freaky, Mr Mallon continues: 'I realise certain members of the Labour Party have done everything in their power to smear me. I've got informants all over the place and I know exactly what's being said and done and I'm never far away from it.'

His election prompts mixed reactions from the other candidates. Socialist Alliance candidate Jeff Fowler says: 'Only time will tell whether the people of Middlesbrough have made a mistake.'

Lewisham LBC

Suzanne Simmons-Lewis

Steve Bullock (Lab), mayoral candidate for Lewisham LBC begins polling day with a good luck telephone call from Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab). For the past five years, he has been running the Local Government Association's Labour Group.

As the future mayor leaves to start his last day of campaigning, his wife Chris leans forward to kiss him

and jokes, 'I wish you luck dear - I've been studying Cherie'.

Humour with a ring of truth, as ambitious mayoral wives could carve out a high-profile 'first lady' role.

Mr Bullock and his wife live in an attractive garden flat which doubles as a campaign office. The surroundings are just gritty enough to keep a hand in the social realities of the borough.

Mr Bullock has a long history with Lewisham. He has been a councillor for 17 years and served as leader. He is not a tall or imposing man, but is acknowledged as someone who can get things done.

One political observer said: 'He's not going to put fire in your belly when he gets up on a podium, but he is a deep and considered thinker and knows how to draw things and people together.'

Although the mayoral result is something of a forgone conclusion, with Lewisham being a staunchly Labour council, divisions within the Labour group led members to approach him to run as a mayoral candidate against council leader Dave Sullivan.

When Mr Bullock won the Labour nomination , Mr Sullivan forced the selection process to be re-run, which merely enhanced Mr Bullock's initial share of the vote.

Mr Bullock's inclusive approach to the job has inspired party members.

'The job is easier if you have members working with you. They are your eyes and ears on the ground and they can challenge you constructively and hold you to account. I prefer an inclusive approach,' he says.

Mr Bullock casts his vote in an almost empty polling station, a scene that could be replicated in many parts of the borough. Boundary changes mean there are new locations for many polling stations. This, coupled with the added mayoral election, leaves many people confused. Some complain they do not understand the voting process and fear they may have vote for the wrong candidates.

Tactical campaigning was used by Labour to ensure two BNP candidates in the Downham ward were not elected. The Liberal Democrats were given almost a free hand to campaign here and claim two victories.

Mr Bullock has not courted the media but says: 'It's okay that the mayor is not widely known at the moment. If in four years' time people still don't know who I am then I will have failed.'

All the mayoral candidates' potential charms are usurped by a 300-strong protest outside the count .

Amid a heavy police guard, the BNP candidates and their supporters seek refuge in police vans after attempting to get to the count. They are only able to enter later with a wall of police escorting them.

Before this, the only controversy threatened to be mayoral candidate Derek Stone's (Con) 'vote for one of your own' poster which flaunted a Union Jack.

After a second count, the mayoral result is announced just before 5am. By then, few people are left to share in Steve Bullock's victory speech.

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