Tories' hearts sink as New Labour makes waves

Paul Routledge watches the party of slick patter take Wirral South by storm
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The Independent Online
If this is a dress rehearsal for the general election, as the players say it is, then heaven help democracy. The Tories have clearly given up hope of win- ning the critical by-election in Wirral South and Labour has reduced politics there to a telephone sales-pitch.

Four days before the poll, the steam has gone out of John Major's attempt to hold on to a slice of Middle England that looked for ever Conservative. Les Byrom, the sleek Tory candidate, still insists "I will be the MP" but there is virtually no one around to hear him, and the mantra lacks conviction.

By contrast, Labour's hi-tech headquarters exudes the confidence of an invading army equipped with smart weapons. They think they have discovered the Patriot missile of politics: the "voter identity" telephone broadside, matching the phone book to the electoral register and the sales message of New Labour.

Nothing is left to chance in the Bromborough High Street office, open to the public gaze, where activists sit at banks of phones, beneath massive portraits of Tony Blair suspended from the ceiling. Voters are telephoned once, twice, even three times to identify their political leanings. Follow- up calls are handled by MPs, bused into the constituency and hand-picked to have the right accent for the proles of Port Sunlight, where the soap comes from, and the affluent residents of Heswall at the other side of the Wirral peninsula.

A far cry from the Conservative HQ in a remote business-park shed, where visitors are greeted with a poster of a cuddly hippo wearing a blue rosette and bearing the legend "See you on polling day?". Yes, unbelievably there is a question mark after the message, as though the Tories are not very confident of many acepting the invitation.

Their scepticism is well-placed. A death wish seems to have gripped the party that likes to think it was born to rule. The roadshow is a shadow of previous by-elections. On Friday, Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley came up to bang the drum. He visited a ceramics factory, presented a certificate to a group of workers, and told a mildly risque joke about giving a school prize to a comely sixth-former. Minister to pupil: "And what are you going to do when you leave school?" Girl, fluttering eyelashes: "Well, I was going straight home."

Mr Lilley gave out a brief statement on Labour's national minimum-wage plan, which he said (without evidence) would cost 1,000 jobs in the constituency. He may have spoken to a couple of dozen voters. He also spoke to one out-of-town reporter, before speeding off to open a conservatory in the Wheatsheaf, a 16th-century pub in rural Raby. There, he avoided questions from a lifelong Tory woman voter who was irate about the DSS's practice of selling the homes of those it puts into care. "Write a letter," sniffed an aide. Exit another vote.

The caravan then moved on to a house party at the home of Graham and Jennifer Russell, in leafy, loyal Bebington. The wine was excellent, and Mr Lilley moved round the 20 or so party faithful as if in a political salon. He told another reasonable joke, and a very bad one (that the Conservatives would win on Thursday) and asked for questions. One lady voiced fears that if Labour won power, house prices in the area would tumble because David Blunkett would close the grammar schools. Mr Lilley was in such a hurry to agree that he described Mr Blunkett as "the education statesman", rather than spokesman. The second questioner complained that local authorities in Wirral were spending public money putting old people into council- owned homes rather than into private residential care. Big Les and Wee Pete concurred heartily with this complaint, too. Then everybody went home.

But who was listening? Apart from the predominantly elderly attending the Bebington salon, and your representative from the Independent on Sunday, the only media who saw the whole show was a bright young lady from Swiss radio and a man from Reuters, the international news agency. No local papers, no local TV, no local radio.

Admittedly, it was an agreeable way for a Cabinet minister to spend most of a day away from the Westminster hothouse. But serious by-electioneering it was not.

Contrariwise, the only sure way of avoiding Labour is to have the phone disconnected, go ex-directory or simply go on holiday.

Pity the poor Liberal Democrat voters, for instance. Once unearthed by the Blair telephone troopers' "voter identity" campaign, they are contacted by an activist whose orders (they have fallen into the hands of this newspaper) are clear.

Headlined Squeeze Message, the instruction sheet tells party workers to squeeze voters into believing that "Only Labour can stop the Tories in Wirral South" and they must vote for Ben Chapman, a 56-year-old former diplomat and DTI civil servant who converted to New Labour last year.

The do-this, say-that-if-they-say-this manual reads like a double-glazing sales manual. Any party worker who can handle it can be sure of getting a job as a salesperson, and Mr Chapman will unquestionably be propelled into the Commons on the back of this hard-sell technique.

Labour strategists excuse the practice by arguing that they are simply showing the voters how competent they can be. Is it too much of a coincidence that they are selling the party like detergent in the birthplace of soap powder?