Election '97: This time, prime target is Mondeo Man

Michael Streeter reports from the key battlefield of Redditch

A battle is looming in Middle England. Redditch, the Hereford and Worcester town which grew next to one of the country's wealthiest medieval abbeys and which became the needle-making capital of the British Empire is now at the centre of the political struggle for the hearts and votes of the electorate.

In this new constituency of 61,640 voters - the town was formerly part of the Mid Worcestershire seat - new Labour needs a notional swing of 3.2 per cent to beat the Conservatives. A major focus for them is what is known as "Mondeo Man", the house-owning car-owning former Thatcherite voter disillusioned under John Major.

For some observers, the phenomenon of Mondeo Man has supplanted Essex Man as the key indicator group to the fate of this election. One Labour source claimed: "Redditch is Middle England. It's typical of the kind of seat where people feel most betrayed by the Tories' record. Tax has increased and there is rising crime." The seat's importance was underlined last week when the party's deputy leader, John Prescott, kicked off the first of his national New Labour Shows in the town's Palace Theatre.

Yet there are signs of prosperity in what was once the archetypal Victorian boomtown, which became a new town 33 years ago to the day. Nearly 30 per cent of households own two cars, above the national average of 24 per cent, and the number of jobless seeking benefit is 5.6 per cent, below the United Kingdom average of 6.5 per cent.

Conservative Association chairman Frank Myers is heartened by the current boom in the town and encouraged by the way his party won a borough council by-election on 13 March - albeit by just two votes.

"It would bode well for the rest of the country if we could win Redditch," he said. But he concedes: "It will be a tough seat, we're right on a knife edge, on the front line."

Just how tough is shown by The Independent's focus group of disaffected Tory voters below. Set up last autumn, some of the group have already decided to switch to Labour; none has switched to the Liberal Democrats, who are expected to come third in the new seat.

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