Sigh of relief for ruling party as the 'unthinkable' is avoided

LABOUR kept its hold on Barnsley last night – and even gained a seat. There had been widespread fears that Labour national scandals and problems would have a backlash in Barnsley and before counting started the borough had been tipped by many pundits as a key council Labour might lose overall control of.

It was widely perceived the threat from the Barnsley Independent Group, which started off the night confident its candidates would take several Labour seats, was a very real one.

Barnsley had been highlighted as one of the key 14 councils Labour was desperate to hold on to.

Tony Blair had even called council leader Steve Houghton yesterday afternoon to wish him well and Labour HQ was anxiously texting members in Barnsley in the early hours of this morning to find out the results.

The prestigious Radio Four Today programme had also featured an in-depth look at Barnsley and suggested what once might have been the unthinkable might really happen and Barnsley might no longer be a town ruled by Labour

But in the end Labour fought off the challenge and took a seat from BIG in the Central ward and ended the night increasing its overall majority to 5.

BIG did take one scalp – the Darton East ward which had been held for Labour by Regeneration Scrutiny Commission chairman Albert Cullum, but lost the Darton West ward which went back to Labour.

Council leader Steve Houghton, who has lost half a stone over the past week, admitted there had been a real and very genuine fear the recent political headlines in Westminster might boost the challenge of BIG.

And he said he was "extremely concerned" by the showing of BNP candidates who contested half the 22 seats and racked up 8 per cent of the total votes, attracting as much support as the Lib Dems.

Coun Houghton said he was "delighted" with the results. He said: "We had originally thought we could have taken several more wards, but political events over recent weeks have had a very real impact, people on the doorsteps have been telling us so.

"Talking to people we have been given a lot of positive feedback about what we are doing about regenerating the town centre, what we are investing in education and what we are spending on services.

"But there has been a great deal of unhappiness about national politics and that is what caused the real fear.

"I am pleased that people appear to have recognised that BIG do not have a clear set of policies, instead they simply oppose whatever we are doing.

"However I am very concerned about the showing of the BNP. Tonight we have seen gangs of BNP members walking around, I find that frightening and recent political events and revelations about some people who have not been deported when they should have, have unfortunately given the BNP all the publicity they could have possibly wanted."

BIG leader Coun Ron Fisher admitted he was "a little disappointed" with the results, but said the Barnsley Independent Group would "keep on fighting".

Penistone maintained its tradition of being the only Tory heartland in the Barnsley borough. Conservatives held on to Penistone West and to two seats in Penistone East where there was an extra vacancy caused by the resignation of former Tory councillor Deborah Toon.

The overall turn-out across the Barnsley borough yesterday was 33 per cent. Labour took 38 per cent of the overall vote. BIG and other independents 27 per cent, Conservatives 15 per cent and Lib Dems and the BNP 8 per cent each.

Barnsley Council now has 33 Labour councillors, 22 independents, five Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats.