Election '97: Victim of the recession is loath to forgive

John Major is pinning his hopes of winning the election on those still undecided. Yesterday Independent reporters visited six Tory marginals and found voters coming off the fence and switching their allegiance to Tony Blair: STEVENAGE
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Many Stevenage voters are being diverted away from their natural home with the Conservatives. Jo Hilsden, who with her husband, Trevor, runs TJ's Cafe, can reel off a list of small shopkeepers who have closed in the past four years - the kitchen designer, the lady with the outsize- shoe shop and so on - it is this list which has turned her against the Tories.

"I was a Tory voter. But we've been here four years. And in that time we've suffered so much under the recession and we've had no help at all. When we asked for help, they said it was just something we all had to go through. They said it was the global economy. Now they're trying to claim the credit for it getting better."

Mrs Hilsden could forgive the Conservatives almost anything but she couldn't forgive them letting her down. "They're not the party of small business. I'm voting for Tony Blair." In the 1980s Stevenage embodied a Tory dream, with its high levels of new owner-occupation and young, aspirational families. But it has been bruised by the recession and feels reluctant to forgive.

With the closure of firms and unemployment creeping up to 6 per cent, this is a place 40 minutes from London where it is possible to see a choice of flats for pounds 25,000: a very tired new town. In this climate, local candidates have taken on an unusual significance. What matters, say voters, is what they will do for Stevenage. And this is where the Tories are losing votes. Despite an impressive list of visiting heavyweight support, few seem to have seen Timothy Wood, the candidate, canvassing in the flesh, and he has failed to capitalise on any residual goodwill. Voters like Rachel Barber say their vote has been determined by "effective" canvassing on behalf of Labour candidate Barbara Follett. "Barbara Follett seems very Stevenage-orientated."

Her whole family have been Tory voters, she said. "But none of them is very sure any more.

The problem faced by local Conservatives is that they are seen to be campaigning against their own record. Many local Conservative voters say they have switched on the basis of their own experience of apparently declining services.

Pensioner Violet Piper abandoned a lifetime habit of voting Conservative for the Liberal Democrats on the basis of education and the NHS. She was having to help finance her grandchildren through university. "They just don't do enough to help students."

Her brother recently arrived from South Africa and got jaundice. "The NHS said he had to wait a week for tests and he was getting yellower and thinner. He'd paid all his taxes. In the end he went back to South Africa early and they did it straight away," she said. Her husband, Bob, also a Tory waverer, seemed minded to stick with them, she said. "But I'll persuade him." Overall, Stevenage voters appear to reinforce the adage that opposition parties do not win elections, governments lose them.