The main interest in Blackburn local elections with Darwen Borough Council is not whether Labor will retain control of the council, but who will be its leader.
It would take almost a political miracle for the Conservatives to gain power in the borough. With Labor convinced the Conservative vote is ‘collapsed’ following ‘Partygate’ in Ten Downing Street, they see little threat to their ascendancy in the May 5 ballot.
If they hold their ground, long-term party strategist and group number two Cllr Phil Riley should be crowned as the successor to current chief Cllr Mohammed Khan, who is one of several heavy hitters to step down this time. The only question is whether anyone will stand in his way to mark when the 70-year-old regeneration boss hands over the baton.
Only its co-leader Quesir Mahmood is considered a credible alternative.
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With 17 districts up for grabs, Labor has 35 councillors, the Conservatives 13, the Liberal Democrats the only Paul Browne in Darwen East while there are two independents Yusuf Jan-Virmani (expelled from Labor) and Andrew Walker (currently suspended of the conservative Party Party).
It would take a virtually clean sweep of gains in the 12 seats held by Labor for an overall Tory victory. But in the broader political picture, there are several intriguing contests.
The Tories are imagining their chances of ousting Cllr Riley in his Roe Lee ward where they got less than 345 votes last year, which would well and truly upset the apple cart of Labor leadership. They also hope Cllr Jan Virmani’s bid for Audley and Queen’s Park will open up an opportunity to follow taxi driver and viral video star Tiger Patel’s victory in 2021 with a second triumph next month.
Meanwhile, Cllr Patel’s veiled wife, Fajila, seeks to oust longtime Labor councilor Parwaiz Akhtar in her stronghold of Bastwell and Daisyfield. The smart money is Cllr Jan-Virmani who clings to his neighborhood as an independent despite a Labor candidate for Ehsan Raja and Ms Patel failing to join her husband in the council chamber.
The Tories are also making a big push to try to repeat their candidate Jon Baldwin’s victory in 2021 in the once strong Labor district of Ewood where his veteran representative Maureen Bateson retired. But Labor are confident his daughter Elaine Whittingham will carry on the family tradition of winning there.
The Liberal Democrats were unable to field any candidates in Blackburn and are focusing on four candidates in Darwen and one in the neighboring West Pennine borough. Mark Davies is making a second attempt to follow in his father Roy’s footsteps in Darwen East and veteran campaigner John East is seen as having a good chance in Tory-held Darwen South.
Labor are campaigning on their record of running the council and attracting new housing and developers to a borough where 60 per cent of homes are pre-1919 terraces. They believe this will attract younger, enterprising residents.
They also emphasize new policies to restore some free recreation, protect the environment and improve highways. But they also highlight the “Boris factor”.
Cllr Riley said: ‘There is a national breakdown in confidence in the Conservative Party and we expect this to be reflected in local elections.
The Blackburn Conservatives with the Darwen Slogan admit this problem saying, ‘This election is not about Downing Street but our street’.
They are proposing the return of weekly bin collections, free green yard waste collection, no future council increases and a moratorium on house building in the borough while they review the need for new houses and the provision of roads, schools and doctors’ surgeries to serve the new homes.
Their chief Cllr John Slater said: “We’re coming up with a smarter way to run the board. We will highlight the recent downgrading of its Department of Children’s Services by Ofsted.
Cllr Browne said: ‘The Liberal Democrats will put Darwen first and politics second as we always have.