Election '97: Boom town that remains an important battleground

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The Independent Online
Northampton is one of the towns which, the Conservatives would argue, backs their slogan Britain is Booming, but that might not be enough to woo the voters on 1 May.

Economically, Northampton is reaping the benefits of its central geographical position with the growth of distribution warehouses and light industry and lower than average unemployment.

But Labour controls both the borough and, at least until 1 May, the county council; the town has high pockets of unemployment and an estimated 75,000 people are dependant on Job Seekers Allowances or Income Support in the county.

Northampton North is a key marginal for the Labour Party with their candidate, Sally Keeble, needing a 3.6 per cent swing to take it from out-spoken Conservative candidate Tony Marlow.

The contest is tougher in Northampton South, where the Conservative's Michael Morris has a 16,000 majority. Although that majority has suffered with the boundary changes, Labour's Tony Clarke still needs an estimated 12.7 per cent swing to take it.

The town has had its share of presidential-style visits, one from John Prescott and one by Labour leader Tony Blair, while their Conservative equivalents have stayed silent. This is not a surprise to Mr Marlow, one of the eight Tory MPs who had the whip removed and whose election literature comes out firmly against a single currency. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the politicking and the recent visits, voters in the town are bemused by the General Election.

Voter Karla Dearsley, 41, said: "There are lots of issues, but they (the politicians) are not really addressing them, are they? Things like employment, the welfare state, pensions. They seem more interested in saying what the other people would do if they got the chance than what they would do. There are no personalities that I particularly warm to either but my fear is that John Major might get people's sympathy because they think, poor chap, his party is being rotten to him."

Her views are echoed by Cameron Wood, who was 18 when the Tories were elected to power in 1979. "I'm not really sure what I'm going to do yet," he said.

"The issue for me is that I bought a house in 1989 and I have seen huge mortgage and interest rises and I have negative equity on my home and, for probably selfish reasons, my main fear is that it will go up if Labour got in."

The impression in Northampton, despite hard campaigning from Labour, is that "don't knows" still hold the key.