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PARTIES UNVEIL THEIR ELECTION CAMPAIGNS

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Labour takes on policing and tax...
Labour takes on policing and tax

By Nick Golding

The 2006 local election campaign creaked into life last week with little agreement between the parties about the main issues.

While the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were keen to highlight their environmental credentials, Labour is campaigning against anti-social behaviour and for education improvements.

Speaking at the launch of Labour's London election campaign last week, Tony Blair said: 'Only Labour will deliver more local police teams, council tax levels kept low, better local services and cleaner streets.'

The Lib Dems say their councils are backing energy efficiency, while Conservative leader David Cameron is set to further establish his green credentials in a major speech next week.

However, many Tory activists are unhappy with Mr Cameron's reported decision to take time out from the campaign to spend three days visiting a remote Arctic glacier.

There were the customary rows about council tax. Labour say their councils cost£190 on average less than Conservative councils - a claim the Tories say is based on the fact their councils tend to be in wealthier areas with more large homes.

Caroline Spelman, shadow secretary for the office of the deputy prime minister, insisted: 'On average, Conservative councils charge£81 a year less on Band D bills than Labour councils and£88 a year less than Liberal Democrats.'

In total, 4,360 of the 19,579 council seats in England on 176 of the 386 councils are up for grabs. There will also be voting for directly elected mayors in Hackney, Lewisham and Newham LBCs and Watford BC.

With two of the three party leaders facing their first major test at the ballot box, all parties are desperate to make gains.

Eric Pickles, the shadow minister for local government, said the Conservatives were fighting the elections from a 'high water mark' following their success four years ago.

Labour

The party is campaigning on lower council tax, improving education and fighting anti-social behaviour through both ASBOs and neighbourhood policing teams.

Its education objectives were boosted by the budget in which Gordon Brown pledged to bring state school investment up to the levels currently enjoyed by private schools. Labour pledges a Sure Start children's centre in every community by 2010.

The party claims successful regeneration projects mean cities are the strongest they have been for the past 100 years.

Conservative

'We've got different strategies in different places,' Margaret Eaton, the party's group leader on the Local Government Association, said.

Although the party's strategy might be an example of localism in action, insiders say David Cameron's interest in green politics has drawn attention to Tory councils' environmental successes.

The Conservatives criticise the growth of regional government under Labour and complain pensioners suffer excessive tax.

Liberal Democrat

The Lib Dem's four-page manifesto claims the party's councils deliver safer communitiesand fairer services.

It points to policies piloted locally including Islington LBC's acceptable behaviour contracts, Bristol City Council's cleaner vehicles initiative and Eastbourne DC's recycling of computers.

'It's time to give power back to people and to their communities,' said leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

Analysis - National issues inhibit localism

Sometimes it's hard to work out exactly where local government fits into the forthcoming council elections.

This May constitutes the first electoral test for David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell and the last, potentially fatal, test for Tony Blair.

Many think the biggest winner on the night could be chancellor Gordon Brown, with a Labour drubbing likely to accelerate his ascent to 10 Downing Street.

Last year's elections were of course overshadowed by the general election, and this year's are likely to be equally undermined by personality politics.

Too much of all parties' literature concentrates on national issues.

This is sadly ironic considering that Labour and the Conservatives are making their most convincing localist noises for years, alongside the perennially devolutionist Lib Dems.

With local elections won or lost over national issues there is less scope for successful local politicians to win

re-election and those unworthy of their post to be thrown out. Our councils will be poorer as a result.

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