Election '97: Gloss rubs off Labour's prize convert

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She was the Essex woman Britain had been waiting to hear. A Basildon Conservative who was switching to Labour ... but first there were a few lingering doubts.

What, she wanted to know, about all those lefties hiding in the background waiting to pounce as soon as Tony Blair got into No 10?

The inquisitor's name was Geraldine Evans and she earned a rousing cheer from a theatre full of Labour supporters when she announced her switch. It was the high point of a question-and-answer session at the Basildon Towngate Theatre yesterday when Mr Blair and John Prescott, his deputy, launched an assault on the town - the constituency traditionally seen as a weather vane for political fortunes.

Having announced her conversion, Mrs Evans, 51, asked the toughest question of the day: "What gives many people concerns is that we have not heard very much from the more radical side of your party and the unions. What guarantee can you give us that they will not get you into No 10, back you, then sack you?"

Coming from a lifelong Tory, the question could not be ducked and Mr Blair answered it with customary conviction. There was, he said, no "monstrous force" waiting to pounce. Labour had changed for good, rewritten Clause IV and was not turning back.

Afterwards, Mrs Evans was the woman everyone wanted to interview. Had Mr Blair convinced her that the unions were in check? "Yes," she told the television crews, "he has won me over."

The audience was left with the impression that Mrs Evans, landlady of The Barge pub in Vange, was a new convert who might have gone back to the Tories had it not been for Mr Blair's assurances. However, this was the same Mrs Evans who was wheeled out by Labour two weeks ago when Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, visited Basildon.

She was one of a group of switchers to be invited to an evening rally with Mr Brown at a time that would have missed Fleet Street deadlines. So she conducted an interview with The Independent over a Labour press officer's mobile telephone.

"I'm not a plant," she said yesterday. "I was invited by Angela Smith [the Labour candidate] but I was told I could ask anything I like, or nothing at all. I suppose it would be less than honest to say that they thought I would come here and say something against them."

There is nothing wrong in what Labour or Mrs Evans did, but some in the audience who felt that they had witnessed a conversion might feel a little disappointed that they had not. In the final analysis, it is a demonstration of how a party can use an individual, in this case a pub landlady, to deliver a powerful message on prime time television and in national newspapers.

It was a ploy that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats criticised afterwards, at the end of a walk- about by Mr Blair and Mr Prescott during which they were cheered by hundreds of well-wishers.

"The whole thing was stage-managed," the Tory candidate, John Baron, said.

"Naturally, I wasn't invited inside, but there were very few independent people out here. They were all put here by Labour."

Mr Baron's message was blunted somewhat by the presence of the Tory chicken carrying a placard that read: "Panorama - Is This Why He Won't Do a TV Debate?"

But the event turned out to be successful for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Terry Marsh, the former boxer, who was approached by two Labour supporters afterwards and offered support.

"I'm going to vote for you," said one of them, James Thompson, 19. "After hearing Tony Blair, I can't help feeling Labour is just offering Tory policies. I couldn't vote for them."

There was a suggestion from within the Labour camp that this defection, too, was stage-managed and that the defectors were, in fact, members of Militant. But even in an election generously populated with Conservatives in chicken costumes, 19-year-old members of Militant - an organisation that peaked some 10 years ago - seemed hardly credible.