Election '97: Seaside with marginal attraction

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The Independent Online
For voters in Tynemouth, rubbing shoulders with famous politicians is becoming almost commonplace. The political big guns are being wheeled out at a rate of three a week in this most marginal of constituencies.

Hardly a day goes by without a Westminster star mucking in with the local butcher or shaking hands with punters on Whitley Bay seafront. Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley, William Hague and Robin Cook have all been and gone. Others of even greater standing will follow.

The electorate are being left in no doubt as to how precious their vote is, by the Tories desperate to maintain a lone patch of blue in the sea of red that dominates the political map on Tyneside, and by Labour who know if they can't win seats like this they will never win power.

Neville Trotter, the outgoing Tory MP, is retiring after 22 years and with him a substantial personal loyalty vote could disappear.

He leaves his would-be successor Martin Callanan a seat that has not been in Labour hands since 1950, but one with a majority that has been whittled down to a mere 597 in 1992.

For the Labour candidate, Alan Campbell, the outlook, in what national polls would suggest should be a comfortable gain, has been clouded by boundary changes. The rock solid Labour Riverside ward has been removed from the battle zone and put into the North Tyneside seat.

That leaves him needing to conjure a swing of 3.2 per cent - a notional deficit of around 3,500 - to snatch the seat. The Tynemouth count will provide a welcome touch of drama to election night in the North-east. Our only excitement usually comes from observing whichever of the two Sunderland seats is in its traditional race to be the first in the country to declare a result.

Local Tories are divided over how the party will fare. William Storey, 62, secretary of Tynemouth Golf Club says he, like many other Conservative voters, is going through a period of soul-searching. "I have always voted Conservative, it has been an automatic thing. But now I am thinking very deeply about it," he said. "I find previously staunch Tories are disenchanted with the party. While the majority fear a Labour government, they are finding it very difficult to back Major after years and years of unquestioned support."

Edna Halliday, 52, who owns an organ shop in Whitley Bay says she and other businesses in the area are still experiencing a slump in trade for which the Government must take some of the blame.

"I have tried all sorts to get business to pick up but I've had no help from anyone. I vote Conservative because I have worked hard all my life to make a living. Labour have changed, but when it comes to crossing the box, people will still go with the Tories."

Mr Callanan, 35, is looking for most of his votes in the affluent, white- collar, coastal wards of Whitley Bay, Monkseaton and Tynemouth. He has personally championed a campaign to create a new council for the coast by abolishing the Labour-run North Tyneside authority - a move supported by a 20,000 signature petition.

Mr Campbell, 39, a father of two and a teacher, is more concerned about attracting jobs to the area which has already seen major inward investment and work for 2,000 in the form of the giant Siemens microchip plant.

A poll of 500 Tynemouth voters by Market Research UK for the Journal at the start of the campaign suggested the Tories had slipped 22 points behind Labour into third place, with voters in every age group, class, occupation and location turning to Tony Blair.