Last April, Cllr Andy Croy was Labour’s sole representative on Wokingham Borough Council. But just a few weeks later, the old joke – that you could stick a blue rosette on a pig in Wokingham and it would still get elected – was proved false as two more Labour councillors won seats.
In Bulmershe and Whitegates, Cllr Carl Doran joined Cllr Croy. But it was in Norreys where Labour scored an incredible result: hard-working activist Rachel Burgess toppled deputy leader David Lee in the biggest shock of the night.
Now, Cllr Croy is hoping voters will add more red to the council chambers.
“Rachel and Carl have set a very high bar for any future councillors. They’ve put some current councillors to shame because they take their roles seriously. They prepare for meetings and are very thorough.
“In full council meetings it’s great if you’ve got two or three of us making the same point, as we did over the child maintenance tax [which would have seen council tax discounts reduced for hard-up residents].
“And it’s the same with Rachel’s working on funding for the Breastfeeding Network. That’s ongoing – we haven’t secured all the funding needed to protect the network, but she has secured enough to keep it going for another year.
“Again, with Carl on the planning committee, it’s not a political committee as planning is governed by law, but Carl’s attention to detail and his determination to do the job properly is fundamental to who he is. He wasn’t just going to turn up and vote for stuff because officers told him to. He’s prepared to stand his ground.”
Cllr Croy feels that “being a representative of the Labour party in Wokingham is not the easiest gig in the world, so if we have to dig in, we’ll dig in.”
The success of Cllr Burgess in Norreys last May has been galvanising for Labour candidates in other wards.
“Because there’s more of us, we’re more confident when standing. Rachel’s win has given members heart. We can win seats if we put the work in – and we have to work. We can’t just turn up and expect to get elected like some parties. If we work and have good candidates we can get elected.
“It’s not easy. People have got to commit the time and to put in the work, but where members have worked hard, we hope they will have pleasing election results.”
Although Labour could increase its presence on the council, it still wouldn’t be in a position of power. So what difference could more Labour councillors make?
“The first thing to recognise is that we have a leader and cabinet system, so that the leader appoints members of the executive. The council actually has limited power. It has to approve a budget but the chances for council to seriously change policy is quite limited.
“Some of the scrutiny work we do at committee stage will improve because there will be more Labour councillors rather than councillors who are just treading water.”
Cllr Croy said that Labour’s manifesto makes it clear where the party’s focus is – residents.
“If you want a councillor who is going to work exceptionally hard for you, vote Labour,” he said. “The first line of our manifesto is that the first job of a Labour councillor is to stand up for their community. We’ll have a group approach to things, but if a councillor feels that they need to vote in a particular way to stand up for their community, that’s what they have to do. All of our candidates are elected on that basis.”
One example Cllr Croy cites is Wokingham Labour’s opposition Reading Labour’s bus lane bridge over the River Thames, called an MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) scheme. Cllr Dolan’s speech in the planning committee – where he pointed out that it wasn’t a mass rapid transit scheme and it was insulting of Labour-run Reading Borough Council to resubmit a rejected scheme with cosmetic differences – shows that the party allows its councillors to have freedom of speech.
“People don’t necessarily want a councillor who is going to slavishly follow the party line. They want a councillor who will do what’s in the best interests of the community. I just happen to believe that most of the time, what the Labour Party does is in the best interests of our community.”
Brexit looms large over this election, coming up on the doorsteps.
“It’s mostly Conservative voters who are furious,” he said. “Half are furious because the Brexit they voted for hasn’t arrived, half are furious as they voted remain and because Brexit will damage the economy.
“We have this extraordinary situation where our canvassers are acting as therapists for normally Conservative-voting residents. They haven’t seen a Conservative canvasser to express their anger to, so they’re expressing it to us and we’re more than willing to listen sympathetically.”
He is also critical of Julian McGhee-Sumner’s promise to hold a consultation over housing numbers in the borough.
“People just don’t believe the Conservatives. People know they had a consultation over lollipop ladies and they ignored it completely. So why should anyone believe this?
“Most people are sort of seeing it for what it is: a rather expensive political gimmick just in time for the elections and launched just in time to make all of the Conservative party leaflets.
“The problem is at the top of the Conservative Party: the top isn’t listening to its base support, because in an area like this, the Conservative vote has been taken for granted.
“Why should the Tory party nationally listen to people locally if people are always going to be Conservative? What power do people have if you’re always going to vote for the same party? That’s true locally as well. People have reached the end of their tether – if you don’t listen to them, they won’t vote for you. And that’s what we’re hearing now.”
He added that the recent child maintenance council tax issue is a good example of this. It went through the Executive but no one appeared to have spotted the problems this would cause.
“It is astonishing,” he said. “Even in the council chamber, even with Rachel and I making speeches, the Tories didn’t do anything. It was unbelievable. They’re not engaging their brains – they need to do what’s best for their residents.
“After a week of fury they did backtrack on it. It is astonishing it made it to council. Most residents believe the council should be run with debate and strong and fair opposition. That is what we are doing are best to provide.”
Regeneration of Wokingham’s town centre is also “part of the wider malaise”.
“The attitude [from Conservatives] seems to be we’ve got a majority of 30, there are no political consequences or anything that can happen in council, so we can treat the residents badly,” he said. “Labour would never take residents for granted. If we do, we lose our jobs.”
He added: “If we get an extra seat on May 2, I will be happy. But my main message to voters is that if you vote Labour, you will get candidates who will work really, really hard. You won’t be disappointed. We have some genuinely enthusiastic and committed people. They’re an astonishing bunch. If you elect them, they will be fantastic, they won’t let you down and they will provide a strong, effective opposition to the Conservatives.”