Election '97: Tories close gap on Labour as voters confound the polls

Message from The Independent's survey of six important constituencies is that a landslide for Tony Blair is unlikely as the Conservative vote refuses to collapse: CLEETHORPES: 74th Labour target. Majority of about 30 if Labour wins seat
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Despite an admission from Michael Brown, the defending candidate for Cleethorpes, that he accepted pounds 6,000 to ask questions in Parliament, the Tory vote in this re-shaped area seems to be holding up well - but there is a feeling that Labour can take it.

During canvassing by The Independent, no one raised the subject of sleaze, yet the words "trust" and "crime" were used over and over again. In an area where crime has almost doubled since 1984, this was an issue that seemed to concern people even more than health, education and unemployment. Yet many Tories said their lack of trust in Tony Blair to do something about it outweighed disillusion with their own party.

Labour needs to overturn a notional majority, after boundary changes, of about 6,500 if its candidate, the Blairite Shona McIsaac, is to wrest the seat from the right-wing Mr Brown.

Despite the cash-for-questions allegations, Mr Brown is regarded as a good constituency MP, but boundary changes have not been kind to him. Large rural areas in the southern part of the old Brigg and Cleethorpes constituency have been lost, leaving Labour to build on strongholds in central Cleethorpes and the oil and chemicals conurbation of Immingham.

Both main parties say they are confident of victory. If Labour takes the seat for the first time in living memory, it can expect a majority of about 30 in the Commons. Alicia Chater, Mrs McIsaac's agent, said there were encouraging reports of Tories switching to Labour.

"Word is coming in of people in Tory strongholds like Haverstoe, Humberston and New Waltham coming over to Labour," she said. "In the local elections to the new unitary authority [two years ago], a Labour councillor was elected to Laceby for the first time ever; we believe we have now built on that."

Elizabeth Craig, Mr Brown's agent, disagrees: "Our canvassing shows that Michael's vote is holding up well because of the regard in which he is held as a good constituency MP. The electorate realises that the economy is recovering well and they worry about a future under Labour. They want to have confidence in the country and they don't want to see sovereignty sold out to Europe."

Despite such sentiments, the main complaint about the Tories from their own supporters was that John Major's leadership on Europe was weak.

The main complaint about Mr Blair was that he had no track record and could not be trusted. Many felt Labour would swing to the left once in power. Others felt the Liberal Democrats, represented by Keith Melton, were the most honest of the parties - but that a vote for them was a waste.

Nigel Lowther, deputy news editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, believes Labour can snatch the seat. "Mr Brown remains a very popular MP despite his various alleged misdemeanours," he said. "But people are taking a great deal of notice of what is happening nationally and some seem to be switching to Labour.

Brian Oldham, 66

Retired housing manager

"I have voted for the Tories since 1979 but I am switching to Labour for two reasons. I believe Tony Blair has changed that and made Labour a viable alternative.

"Under new Labour, the divisions between the two parties have been reduced and politics is now more centralised. Blair realised that the party was in schtuck ... made it more electable.

"Secondly, but my main priority, is the huge imbalance between rich and poor created in this country under the Tories. I believe Labour will look after the majority of ordinary, honest people and not just an elite at the top".

Kenneth Cunningham, 67

Retired bricklayer

"Over the years, I have voted 50/50 Labour/Conservative, but I'm voting Labour this time.

"More than anything, people want a change. There have been too many Tory years and it's time for Labour to take over. I believe Tony Blair will win by a landslide.

"Crime seems to have got out of control. It's absolutely rife because young people can no longer be sure of getting a job. Instead, they hang around on street corners and get into trouble.

"Someone needs to give them a chance, and only Labour is promising to get them back to work."

Gary Rockhill, 42

Guest house proprietor

"I hope that most people are saying they're going to vote Labour, but actually plan to put a cross next to the Tories once they get in the polling booth.

"I still remember what it was like the last time Labour got in power and I don't trust Tony Blair not to do it again. Labour say they have distanced themselves from the unions, but I'm not so sure.

"I also don't trust them on taxes. I know the Conservatives have put taxes up, but I still believe their instincts are to reduce them."

Rachel Barnes, 30 Primary school teacher

"I'm going to vote Conservative again. For me, it all comes down to whether or not you trust Tony Blair, and I don't.

"I believe hospitals will close under Labour and I actually believe the health service will be safer under the Tories than Labour.

"I am concerned about rising class sizes - ours are usually around 34- 35 and that makes teaching more difficult. I know Labour have promised to reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds but, once again, it comes down to whether you trust them to keep their promise, and I don't".

John Bayliss, 49

Financial adviser

"I voted Conservative last time but I haven't made up my mind for this time.

"It isn't that I've been swayed by Tony Blair; it's more that I've become disillusioned with the Tories.

"I don't think people need to be as concerned about a Labour-controlled economy as many are. Mainly, I feel that politicians are out of touch with the concerns people feel over law and order and health.

"And I don't think they realise that most people wouldn't mind paying a penny or two more in taxes if we were guaranteed to get better education and health services.