Election '97: Middle England swayed by rootless tree

Michael Streeter finds Redditch influenced by Tories' broadcast attack on Labour
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A perceived failure of the Labour Party to set the election campaign alight is influencing some disillusioned Conservatives to vote Tory again, according to The Independent's group of voters in a key marginal seat.

Some of the Redditch group - all former Conservative voters - regard John Major as conducting a more effective campaign and there are indications that the recent party election broadcast depicting new Labour as a "rootless tree" has struck a chord.

Promisingly for Tony Blair, his party's pledge to raise pounds 1bn for the health services from the midweek lottery has been favourably received. But more ominously for him, there are signs that the state of the economy, and its prospects under a change of government, are playing more and more in the minds of so-called Mondeo Man across middle England.

The common ground between local Tory and Labour campaigners that the result in the Hereford and Worcester seat - where Labour needs a swing of just over 3 per cent to win - may be closer than indicated by national polls is also born out by the group's views. Among the undecided there is admiration for the Liberal Democrat policies, but a stronger slide towards staying with the Tories rather than trusting the uncertainty of a Labour government.

Steven Marriott, 28, had wanted to vote Labour for the first time but will now support the Tories. "The campaign has disappointed me, it's like they say a Punch and Judy show. I thought the parties were going to sell themselves but they're just bickering. I expected Tony Blair would have something to say." He is concerned about tax rises but has seen nothing from new Labour to inspire him.

Roger Jones, 42, an invoice manager, remains undecided but was swayed by the rootless tree broadcast. "I thought that was a vote getter and for me a real eye opener. It brought home that Labour change their policies all the time." He is waiting to see if Mr Blair can produce new policy initiative.

Another group member, Brian Nicholls, 60, a butcher, has been more confused than enlightened so far. "The campaign has been very negative and more about one-upmanship." He had considered voting Labour but believes he will stick with "what I know" on the issues that matter most, trust and the economy, again citing the rootless tree broadcast.

The economy also concerned Lionel Baird, 52, a paramedic who had been determined to vote for Mr Blair but has switched back to Mr Major. "I'm looking to retire in five or six years and I'm really starting to think about what will happen to my investments. It all depends on growth and will that slow down under Labour? I'm worried they might think they won't get in again and so try to do too much too quickly and muck it up."

However, toolmaker Andrew Osciak, 45, who had wobbled over his new-found support for Labour, is now concerned about the Tory divisions over Europe. "They are split while Labour seem stronger and united."

He remains unconvinced by the campaign but has a different view of the economy from other group members. "John Major talks about a boom but there is no boom in Redditch. They say unemployment is falling but in Redditch there are more and more people in part-time jobs, they're constantly on the move yet they are classed as fully employed. I've been made redundant three times in the last few years. I don't agree that we can't do any better."

Susan Lovett, 38, a former sales consultant, was impressed by Labour's new lottery policy though she will still vote Tory. "It's a very clever move. A lot of people including myself have always thought that the money should go to education or health rather than to the Churchill papers or the Royal Opera House." Increasingly, her concern is for the economy, on which she simply does not trust Labour.

David Bignell, 51, a retired British Telecom engineer, is also impressed with the lottery scheme. "It's appealing though it's not really the responsibility of the lottery to do these things, it should be the government." Locally he feels the Tories have offered nothing and is worried about the state of hospitals as well as the economy. But ultimately he will vote Tory again. "I do think it's about the right man for the job."

Cold-store operator Alan Tomes, 35, agrees. "I suppose it's just a gut feeling. I started to think more about the election and I believe that John Major is still the right man for the job. I trust him to make the right decision for the country, for example over the single currency."

Like many in the group he wants trade with the rest of Europe but is wary about more integration. Yet their general view concurred with the findings of Labour canvassers in Redditch that Europe interests voters, but is too confusing to be a determining factor.

With one week of the campaign to go Mark Redfearn, 29, an engineer, feels more unsure than ever about who to support and will probably sit down this weekend to decide. One of the narrow majority in the group of 13 who had initially decided to switch to Labour - only two are now "definite", suggesting a modest Labour win in Redditch - Mr Redfearn is unhappy with the party's "negative" campaign. "I saw the broadcast where they played "Land of Hope and Glory" and it was rubbish. All they did was talk about the bad things not what they are going to do.

"I had made up my mind that I would never vote Conservative again and that I would vote Labour. But now I'm not so sure. Tony Blair has let me down a bit, cannot face issues and he skirts around them. I'm 50-50 at the moment."