Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Monday, 28 April 2008 14:55 UK

The city that really swings

By James Landale
Political correspondent, BBC News

The city of Exeter has long been a focus of attention for the passing visitor.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg
The national swing may decide things in Exeter - but which way?

Roman legions camped here. The Prince of Orange paused for breath here en route for London, the throne and the glorious revolution.

And the Nazis bombed the cathedral in 1942 in retaliation for allied raids on similar, medieval towns across Germany.

Yet for the political student, it has always been Exeter's enigma that has proved alluring.

Its parliamentary seat has tended to change hands, alternating between the Conservatives and Labour.

Between 1966 and 1970, the late, great Gwyneth Dunwoody held the constituency before surrendering it to the Conservatives for 27 years.

Then in 1997, the ultimate New Labour candidate, Ben Bradshaw - now a health minister - seized the city in the Blairite deluge that swept the country, a small smudge of red in an otherwise sea of Tory blue and Lib Dem yellow that tends to characterise the political map of southwest England.

Wider national mood

The city council has been equally promiscuous, offering its favours to both main parties, although tending to towards Labour and that much-neglected organisation, No Overall Control.

Yet it is now a minority Labour council, the party's 14 seats narrowly ahead of the Lib Dems' 12 and the Conservatives' 10.

As such, at a time of national troubles for the governing party, it is a council ripe for plucking by the opposition parties.

Its fate thus could prove a bellwether for a wider mood across the country.

Roman centurion
Exeter has been a stop-off point since Roman times

As one of the small handful of councils in the South West of England holding elections on 1 May, it will certainly give a pointer at least to what the region is thinking.

Having just spent a day there, I can report that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are hopeful of taking seats off Labour.

And local Labour councillors are fearful that their efforts to regenerate the city will come to nought as the voters punish them for the behaviour of their colleagues in Westminster and Downing Street.

National swing

The credit crunch does not appear yet to have bitten on Exeter.

The local chairman of the chamber of commerce, Derek Philips, is confident the city can weather the storm - council tax is low, business is holding up, house prices are steady, retailers are watchful but not worried.

The big issue here is of local government reform but the contorted battle over potential unitary status is confused and largely an issue for Town Hall, not town street.

Other issues are familiar: affordable housing, recycling, low level crime and so on.

Yet the overwhelming mood is one that none of this matters, neither the Labour council's performance nor its rivals' alternative manifestos.

Instead the sense is of a local Labour council putting up the barricades against a national swing.

A leaflet handed out to potential Labour activists proves the point; it is as plaintively defensive as it is honest.

"The May 1 2008 local elections find us at the point where, if we lose even a single seat, we lose control of Exeter City Council," it says.

"Not only would this be disastrous, the possible knock-on consequences for a national election don't bear thinking about."

Quite.





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THE ELECTION RESULTS
COUNCIL RESULTS
  Councillors Councils
Party +/- Total +/- Total
CON 257 3155 12 65
LAB -334 2365 -9 18
LD 33 1804 1 12
PC 31 205 -1 0
OTH 10 898 0 0
NOC - - -3 64
159 of 159 councils declared.

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Name Party Votes
Johnson CON 1,168,738
Livingstone LAB 1,028,966
Paddick LD 878,097
Berry GRN 409,101

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London Assembly Results
Overall results
Party Constit' Top-up Total seats
CON 8 3 11
LAB 6 2 8
LD 0 3 3
GRN 0 2 2
BNP 0 1 1

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