Page last updated at 19:37 GMT, Tuesday, 6 April 2010 20:37 UK

Berkshire prepares for election

By Peter Henley
BBC South political editor

Royal Ascot racecourse
The county is famous for its Royal Ascot racecourse

With the M4 roaring through the middle, the Royal County of Berkshire is a land of contrasts.

Smart country villages alongside London overspill, well-heeled commuter estates surrounding streets with inner-city levels of crime.

For two decades Labour built up their strength in Reading, running the borough council and in 1997 taking both parliamentary seats. They won the seat in Slough to the east.

The Liberal Democrats held Newbury after a famous by-election victory, and were pushing hard in Windsor and Maidenhead.

But in recent years the Conservatives have fought back. As they pushed Reading council to no over all control, Labour in-fighting handed them Reading East, which Rob Wilson defends with a slender majority this time.

Ethnic mix

Reading's political history goes back a fair way, and its more recent politics have been pretty colourful too. Reading has returned at least one member to every parliament since 1295.

In modern times the town's hugely diverse ethnic mix has made a big difference to local politics. According to a 2007 survey, 127 languages are spoken by Reading's population - the highest number of languages spoken anywhere in the world for a town of its population size.

The prominent Labour MP Martin Salter decided to stand down at this election, and Reading West no longer looks so safe.

Andrew MacKay
Bracknell MP Andrew MacKay steps down after the expenses scandal

Further west still local landowner Richard Benyon won Newbury for the Conservatives after two unsuccessful attempts. It is a grudge match still, as Lib Dem David Rendel tries to get the seat back.

In Wokingham John Redwood faces independent candidates, as well as a Liberal Democrat campaign. But with Adam Alfriye in Windsor and Theresa May in Maidenhead these Conservatives seats have delivered healthy majorities in the past.

But with this election so close to call, every vote matters, and the public's reaction to the expenses scandal is unpredictable.

In Bracknell Andrew Mackay was an MP who may have reckoned without the strength of feeling at a public meeting that led to his resignation, and that of his wife, the Bromsgrove MP Julie Kirkbride.

Economy issue

New candidate Dr Philip Lee was chosen in an open-primary election. But Lib Dems and Labour will do their best to capitalise on Conservative discomfort.

The smaller parties, Greens, UKIP and BNP, will also hope to exploit public anger at the MPs excesses, as well as promoting their own distinctive appeal to Berkshire voters.

Even in this prosperous area, the economy is likely to be a major campaigning issue.

Part of Berkshire's success is due to its transport links - the M4 and the main railway line from the west country gives it a high-speed link into London.

But success brings pain, as in so many southern towns and cities. Actually getting through Berkshire can be a nightmare of gridlock and frustration.

And with so much of the area's prosperity based on commuters heading for London, or the hi-tech industries of the M4 corridor, recessionary woes will surely play a big part in people's voting decisions.



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