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: TAMWORTH: 69th on Labour's list. Winning the seat would give the party a majority of around
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When the electoral mood was tested in Tamworth a year ago Labour's Brian Jenkins glided to victory overturning a comfortable Tory majority to win by more than 13,000 votes, in a memorable by-election win.

After boundary changes the old South-East Staffordshire seat - now officially called Tamworth - has lost two Conservative-leaning areas, making new Labour's task this time, on paper, even more straightforward.

Such thinking, however, is anathema to its election team which wisely counsels against reading too much into one-off polls. Steve Holland, the campaign co-ordinator, said: "By-elections are notorious for throwing up rogue results. It ain't all over till it's all over."

A victory for the Tories would probably mean a tight Labour majority nationally at best.

Tamworth has acquired the reputation of a barometer seat, in politics, an indicator of where the national mood is heading. Trying her best to capture that mood for the Tories is Lady Ann Lightbown, widow of the former MP and government whip Sir David Lightbown whose death caused last year's by-election.

Lady Ann is upbeat about their chances in what looks like a head-to- head between the two main parties after the Liberal Democrat vote fell away last year. "We are getting a good response on the doorstep," she insisted as she canvassed in the picturesque hamlet of Haunton.

But one senior Tory has been heard to say privately that they expect to lose, which seems a more realistic assessment. In our survey of voters, we found a number of disaffected Tories determined to vote Labour or not at all - motivated by what they see as broken promises over tax.

Apart from the predominant concerns over health and education Europe appears as a growing issue on the doorstep, more so after the public Tory divisions, but usually among older voters already likely to vote Conservative. The Labour vote looks fairly stable and there are signs that people who have voted Liberal Democrat or abstained in the past may vote Labour this time to bring down the Government.

Yet there is enough evidence among the undecided to suggest the Tories will poll far stronger than last year and may even run Labour hard on 1 May. Labour expects to lose some of last year's support, while hopefully picking up new votes, and there is a suggestion that the dictum adopted by Bill Clinton's election team in the 1992 presidential election - "It's the economy, stupid" - is reflected among voters. A number of malcontent Tories told us they would ultimately vote for John Major, pointing to the strength of the economy and their rise in prosperity over 18 years.

Mr Jenkins' election team, which has been painstakingly preparing the groundwork on voters for two years, is confident Labour can hold its share of the vote at around 26,000, almost certainly enough to win the seat. But realistically the team expects a smaller majority and insists 1992 is a better comparison. Mr Holland said one of their main tasks was to ensure their supporters turned out in strength and did not just assume a Labour win.

Christine Feenan, 25

Part-time receptionist

Former Liberal Democrat voter intending to vote Labour.

"I voted for the Lib-Dems at the last General Election and I like them, but I will vote Labour now to make sure of a change of government.

"The main issues for me are jobs, education and health.

"Tony Blair seems trustworthy, though all politicians lie at some time. I think John Major is indecisive.

"The country needs a change and we have all had enough of this government. I think my husband will vote Labour as well."

Peter Lubrano, 45

Self-employed graphic designer

Will "probably" vote Conservative again though admits he was until recently undecided.

"I have considered the idea of voting Labour but I do not really trust them, it's just too much of a change.

"I do not believe that ultimately they will be allowed to get away with what they say they are going to do.

"I'm going to vote on what's been happening in the country in the last few years and in general I think that we are better off.

"Most people distrust politicians anyway. It's a question of better the devil you know."

Donna Hinson, 35,

Runs own business providing care in the community

A former Conservative voter, initially undecided. But like a number when pressed, she said: "To be honest I will probably vote Conservative again in the end.

"I do think the Conservatives have lost the plot a bit and they made a lot of promises they didn't keep. Maybe they have done it once too often.

"I'm against the single currency but I would not let one issue influence my vote.

"We provide care in the community and the future of the health service is one of the main issues for me."

Diane Cox, 28

Married with two children

Had been considering voting Labour but is worried about interest rates rising.

"The main issues for me are mortgage rates, jobs and taxation. I was thinking of voting Labour but my father says 'You have never lived under a Labour government, you don't know what it's like.'

"He said there was high inflation and taxation and there was rubbish on the streets. That has got me worrying about what might happen if there was a Labour government."

She said she has also thought about voting for the Liberal Democrats and is now undecided.

Debbie Fulbrook, 33

Has usually voted Liberal Democrat or Labour and this time will vote for Mr Blair's party to help ensure a change of government.

"I have lived under the Tories for 17 years and it has not helped us in that time. We bought this house seven years ago and interest rates shot up.

"The main other issues for me are education and the health service. Europe does matter but it is not an issue that would change me one way or the other.

"It's closer to home that interests me - and that's why I will vote Labour."