Can Labour win in 'Home Counties by the Mersey'?

As John Major calls the Wirral by-election, Paul Routledge looks at this rich constituency which may no longer be such a safe Tory seat
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THERE are fewer on the dole than in most places, and many more people own their homes than is usual. Indeed, in parts of the constituency four out of 10 have paid off their mortgage - often on a detached house with two cars in the drive. They are older than the average voter and if they have to work they do so in management or the professions. This is affluent Home-Counties-by-the-Mersey coun- try. Yet New Labour seriously talks of winning Wirral South.

Can this be right? Possibly. Stung by accusations that the Government is denying democracy to 65,000 voters, John Major last week reluctantly sanctioned a by-election in the seat left vacant by the death of the Conservative MP Barry Porter last November. At the outer limits of parliamentary tolerance, the Tories have bowed to convention and will move the writ in the Commons early next month, with polling day almost certain to be 6 March.

Tory strategists would have preferred to hold the by-election last December, benefiting from a surge in public support following Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's tax-cutting budget. The wave of new confidence never materialised in the opinion polls, and ministers hoped instead to put the whole thing off to the general election. That option was blocked by Opposition promises to force a vote on allowing the people of Wirral to have their say within three months, as Westminster custom dictates.

So now there will be a dress rehearsal for the general election, eight weeks at most before the real thing. If the Tories can retain the constituency, in the words of one Central Office spin doctor, "it could provide a very good platform for the general election campaign".

If? Extraordinary talk. This is - or should be - a safe Conservative seat.

It is a slice across the middle of the Wirral peninsula, that 15-mile- long tongue of land in what was once Cheshire but is now Merseyside, with its eastern side facing across the Mersey to Liverpool and its western side facing across the Dee estuary to North Wales. Both main parties have hopes because it is is an area of contrasts. The solid affluence of the Dee side has provided the Tories with their solid hold on power but the suburban and industrial sprawl along the Mersey coast is profitable hunting ground for Labour.

Barry Porter, a clubbable former solicitor with a passion for cricket, rugby and real ale (though he was no mean performer on the gin and tonic) who died unexpectedly of cancer, had been MP for the seat since 1983, and for the predecessor constituency since 1979. His majority in 1992 was 8,183, or 51 per cent of all the votes cast.

Bill Deedes, the authentic voice of Conservative self-assurance, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that "there are more middle-class professionals living graciously in the Wirral peninsula than you will find in most of the Home Counties". So this should be a Tory walkover, particularly as Labour was forced to change horses mid-stream in embarrassing circumstances: Ian Wingfield, a trade union research officer and councillor in Southwark, south London, the party's original choice, was obliged to quit over newspaper allegations of wife-beating.

Labour's candidate, Ben Chapman, aged 56, a former civil service chief, in the Department of Trade and Industry, and diplomat, has lived locally for six years, but joined the party only nine months ago. Technically, he is ineligible to stand under rule, but the Blairite ascendancy simply imposed him on the constituency. Wounds have evidently healed quickly. Mr Chapman insists (as they always do): "We are going to win. All our people are out on the streets working for me." He doesn't know how many they are. An aide come to his rescue: there are about 500 local party members.

Mr Chapman is quintessentially New Labour. He runs his own business specialising in trade and investment with the Far East, and lives in Heswall, the richest part of the constituency. Until 1995, he ran the DTI's North-west region, responsible for "promoting competitiveness and economic development" - not exactly traditional Scouse preoccupations. His passions are music, especially opera (Manon Lescaut is his favourite) and he is a great hoofer round Wirral's linear walking park. He reads, too. He is just finishing Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island.

On the whole, he seems to be a cut culturally above the constituency, which while well-off and Tory in parts has strong Labour areas on the Liverpool side. This is the home ground of the chemical industry. Port Sunlight, the village built by Lord Leverhulme, the soap magnate with a social conscience, is here. Harold Wilson is the most famous local son. His father was chief chemist at the local chemical works, and Harold is the most famous old boy of Wirral Grammar School. The grammar schools are still there, a bone of contention in the coming poll.

Aha! Now we are told about the Tory candidate. The message comes late from Central Office. Les Byrom, a former surveyor for the Inland Revenue who now has his own business, is "our strong candidate". He is a councillor in Sefton borough across the river.

He is also plainly a glutton for punishment hoping for better things. He stood unsuccessfully for parliament in one of Labour's rotten boroughs, Knowsley South, twice in the early Nineties. His mother was a seamstress, and his da' was a boiler-shop manager for Harland and Woolf. So perhaps he inherits Barry Porter's powerful interest in Ulster Unionism, which could be politically useful.

Between them, Tory and Labour will squeeze the vote. This is bad news for the Liberal Democrats, but not unexpected. Their share of the vote has fallen sharply from almost one in four in 1983 to 13 per cent at the last election.

Their candidate, Neil Thomas, aged 63, is still a serious rower in Birkenhead Dock, but not a serious bidder for the seat. His aides trumpet that "theGovernment is in serious trouble". They do not suggest a Lib-Dem win.