Angry Essex folk swallow bitter pill of disillusionment: Esther Oxford visits the 'electoral barometer' town of Basildon to try to find out which way the political wind is blowing

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'I LOVE Basildon' said the sticker on the door of the Conservative Party offices. From the street it looked hopeful: perhaps someone would be in to explain to local residents why taxes had gone up. A little closer and it was clear that no one was home. 'Too shamefaced,' a tight-lipped neighbour said. On the floor inside lay a pile of letters: no one had been in for a while.

'They must be embarrassed,' said Jean Cavalier, 62, who has lived in Basildon for 25 years. 'I voted for them in the last general election but I won't bother next time.' Yes, she said, she knew that Basildon was known as the 'barometer' of the electorate. She took comfort in this. Maybe the Government would take notice. They've stopped caring about 'us ordinary folk', she said.

Basildon has always been an ordinary new town with an ordinary population. It was built after the Second World War to house East Enders. Basildon offered paradise: three bedrooms, inside lavatories and a garden.

Then two years ago, on the night of the general election, it all changed. Basildon, Essex, population 150,000, was held up as the barometer of the nation. At 11.22pm on 9 April, Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, is reported to have turned to his wife, Glenys, and said: 'That is it.' David Amess, the Conservative MP who used the No-More-Tax policy as a central plank of his campaign, was returned with only a slightly diminished majority.

Yesterday, hovering under the dank concrete shelters in the shopping centre and ducking the drizzle underneath the market hoods, the residents of Basildon had only two things to say: 'No, I'll not vote for the buggers again,' or 'No comment.'

Joyce and Ted Mays were an exception. They are both retired. 'I've voted Conservative all my life,' said Mrs Mays, 'but I didn't realise how big taxes really were. I'll vote Lib Dem at the next election. I feel really disillusioned.' Her husband described himself as a 'staunch Labour man'. Listening to her, he looked smug.

Round the corner at the Pie and Mash shop, Sadie Lawler, 59, was just finishing her lunch. She said she voted Conservative because she believes in 'free enterprise'. Tax, she says, is not important - she doesn't pay it because she only works part time. Anyway, she is coming up for retirement and she hasn't got any children.

In any case, she added, it only works out at ' pounds 1 a week extra for most people'. She wouldn't mind paying that, as long as the money was not spent on roads.

'I don't know what the Labour Party's tax policy is,' she said. 'But I do know that they spend money here, spend money there and then talk about keeping taxes down. Where do they propose to get the money, I ask?'

Lee Pitchers, 27, an estate agent, voted Conservative without reading any of their leaflets. 'I don't need to,' he said. 'I know what they stand for.' Was he surprised to find the Government had 'forgotten' its policy of no taxation? 'No. I expect them to switch policies at their convenience. It is just the way life is. If people are foolish enough to think otherwise, they deserve to be on the dole. My advice to people worried about their tax bill is: 'Stop snivelling and get on with it'.'

Yesterday evening, somebody at the Conservative Association finally answered the telephone. It was Deborah Allan. Yes, she said, she had been rather perplexed at the Tories' 'double whammy', but then she had a 'bit of a think'.

What had she concluded? 'That the Conservatives had not realised it would be necessary to raise taxes when they made those promises.' And her advice? 'To turn your thermostat down one degree,' was her reply.

(Photographs omitted)

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