Election '97: Chivalry tops ballot in sleaze-free zone

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The Independent Online
There is a small corner of Britain that is blissfully untroubled by party politics. No mud-slinging pollutes the air in West Bromwich West; sleaze, as far as the locals are concerned, belongs on another planet.

Far from being at each other's throats in this Black Country constituency, the three main parties have formed a unique coalition. What unites them is Betty Boothroyd, the local MP, and Speaker of the House of Commons.

For the first time in 27 years, mainstream parties are observing a convention of not contesting the Speaker at a general election. Such is Miss Boothroyd's popularity here - locals call her "our Betty" - that old adversaries are working together to ensure she retains her seat. Miss Boothroyd, Labour MP for West Bromwich West since 1973, renounced her party affiliations on taking up office. In her constituency, she can campaign only as the Speaker seeking re-election, without the backing of the Labour machine.

In an exceptional display of gentlemanly behaviour, local Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have refrained from opposing Miss Boothroyd and are even helping with her campaign.

Thus the Speaker finds herself in the curious position of being proposed and seconded by two sworn political foes: Roland Vernon, Labour's constituency chairman, and Ray Partridge, his Tory opposite number.

Mr Partridge, 71, says it would be churlish to contest the Commons' first woman Speaker. With refreshing candour, he adds: "We wouldn't win the seat anyway; it's been a Labour stronghold for years. It would be a waste of money."

In a spartan first-floor room in Oldbury, one of a cluster of former manufacturing towns that make up West Bromwich West, Doug Parrish, Miss Boothroyd's agent, is sorting through posters and leaflets.

He is a member of the all-party committee - Friends of the Speaker, also known as Betty' Backers - set up to run her campaign. At the inaugural meeting, recalls David Warburton, the committee's director, members faced a problem. What campaign colour should Miss Boothroyd adopt? Labour red was out of the question.

"I suggested black and white, the Speaker's colours, but that was a bit funereal," he says. "Someone proposed West Bromwich Albion's colours, but they play in Tory blue. So in the end we decided on a nice parliamentary green. Let's hope Sinn Fein and the Green Party don't stand. "In fact, the only candidate fighting the seat is from an extreme right-wing splinter party, the National Democrats.

Miss Boothroyd, defending a 7,830 majority, says the necessity to avoid political statements makes this, her 12th election campaign, the most difficult so far. "But I am gratified that there is so much goodwill towards me locally," she says. Despite parliament's dissolution, the Speaker's duties mean she will not be in the constituency until late next week. Once there, her engagements include an invitation to Wednesbury Conservative Club.

But while the politicians are competing to be nice to one another, some voters are disgruntled that they cannot support a party. In the seat held by the Speaker, the embodiment of parliamentary democracy, the electorate is effectively disenfranchised. "It's not fair; we're not given a choice," said Dorothy Spooner, an elderly Conservative voter. "No disrespect to Betty, but if she stays Speaker for a while, we'll never have another vote."

Perhaps the happiest person in West Bromwich West at the moment is Mr Partridge. Sitting in his living-room under a picture of the Queen, he says: "For the first time in 50 years, I'll be voting for the winning candidate in a general election."

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