Conservative Party Conference: Rotherham man takes dim view of Hague

WILLIAM HAGUE says he sees the people of his childhood home of Rotherham as the kind the Tories must win over to his dream of "the British way ahead" if they are to recapture 10 Downing Street.

As the Conservative leader arrives back in London from Bournemouth, however, he should reflect that the people of Rotherham may prove reluctant partners. "The words snowball and Hell come to mind," said Phil Caplan, owner of Howard Books, in the town's central square. Mr Caplan, erudite, educated and open-minded, was nevertheless adamant: "The whole culture of this place is Labour. I can't see that changing."

He is one of the more optimistic ones. More representative were Tasha Milner and Kerri Congleton, secretaries at a construction company. On being presented with Mr Hague's proposal, they burst out laughing: "You're not serious, eh?"

"He calls himself a local," said Ms Congleton, a first-time voter (Labour, naturally) in the last election. "But just because he went to a government school doesn't make him one of us. My uncle was at school with him and said he was a right little runt."

Today's Rotherham, despite grand buildings in the centre, a poignant reminder of its Victorian wealth, is a poverty traps. Discount stores vie with each other around All Saints Church; JobCentres offer mainly menial work. There are more Tommy Hilfiger fakes than cloth caps, but people look weary, disillusioned.

Rotherham, in the heart of South Yorkshire's once thriving steel and coal belt, is as Labour as Dennis Skinner. The MP, Dennis McShane, has a majority of 21,500. Unemployment is among the highest in Britain. Of 66 councillors, 65 are Labour, one Conservative. Old Labour traditionalism has been reinforced in concrete during the past 20 years: under the Conservatives, 11 of the 12 coalmines closed, as thousands lost their jobs; the steel industry was also run down. Many locals still describe Labour, despite Tony Blair's modernisation, as "the family".

Stuart Charmack, a former teacher who works in a shop, said: "Labour could put a poodle up for candidate and he'd still get voted in. As Yorkshire folk we're extremely proud of our industrial heritage. So much damage was done by the Tories it's hard to see anyone ever wanting them in power, no matter what the Labour Party does."

Intellectually, many Rotherhamites are middle-of-the-road, rational, potential floating voters like so many around the country; but tradition and obligation overrule intellect. Mr Caplan would be a natural Tory voter in many other parts of the country. "Small businessmen like us saw the Conservatives take away the spending power of so many of my customers," he said. "And because unemployment is so high, employers can pay minimum wages and get away with it. Labour would have to do something incredibly detrimental to this place for the Tories ever to have a chance."

When he targets Rotherham Person, though, Mr Hague, as a local who was schooled here, must know what he is up against. When he speaks of conservative values (with a small `c'), he is speaking of the place he was schooled at, the values of traditional Britain. For this is a place where radical change is frowned on. "That's why Scargill's party don't get any votes," said Roy Kearnsley, a former miner living out his years on retirement benefit and drinking in the Angel pub, in the town centre. "He may have stood up for us but he's a Bolshevik."

The Pakistani population is smaller than that of Sheffield, seven miles away, but the welcome for them has never been warm; many old Socialists grumbled when Naz Ahmed, a councillor, was appointed to the House of Lords this year. "Don't get many of you around 'ere" was a comment this reporter, an Iranian, received in several pubs in the suburbs: it was delivered in a tone that suggested that change would not be entirely welcomed.

Rotherham is trying to inculcate an enterprise culture, whose participants may eventually find their natural home inside the party of Margaret Thatcher: 1,200 jobs have been created in the past year, many in the high-tech sector; the rate of new business start-ups is one of the highest in the region. The most typical voter attitude of the youngest generation is apathy and hostility, not Labour allegiance.

The young are Britain's poor, and their politics are those of drugs, alcohol and despair. Even those with jobs have little time for politics. "I'll vote for whatever party provides best for my little girl," said Susan Whiteley, who works in a household goods shop. "Even though she ruined this place, I think Britain needs somebody like that Thatcher. At least she knew what she thought. None of this lot do."

Marie Hodgkinson, managing a shop in the town's arcade, said: "Do any of them down there know what it's like to be a shop manager and still have to save up for weeks every time you want to have a meal out? ... We earn in five years what an MP earns in one, and we work harder."