Newbury's divas lead charge to Lib-Dems

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The Independent Online
THE CHOICE of Iolanthe as the Newbury Operatic Society spring production could hardly have been more apt. The famous refrain that 'every boy and every gal that's born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative' has been going down especially well. This sprawling constituency, covering half of Berkshire and which Labour does not have a hope of winning, is one seat where it still seems to be true.

Recognising the resonance, Channel Four's A Week in Politics has enterprisingly polled the Society's 46 members and established that nine have defected to the Liberal Democrats from the Tories since the 1992 general election. For those interested in the gender factor in British politics, the figures, broadcast last night, show - alarmingly for the Tories - that two-thirds of the society's sopranos have made the switch. Among tenors the defections are fewer - only three out of seven - and of these two were to Lindi Miss Whiplash The Black Leather Pimpernel St Clair, as she styles herself among the 19 names on the ballot paper. Total swing to the Liberal Democrats: 21 per cent. Since the Liberal Democrats' candidate, Old Etonian councillor David Rendel, needs only a 9.3 per cent swing to overturn the Tories' 12,357 majority, the figures suggest a landslide for Paddy Ashdown's party.

Whether the trend among Newbury's divas can be spread across the constituency is what the remaining four days of the Liberal Democrats' campaign will be all about. Today's rather more serious NOP/Mail on Sunday poll, putting the party 16 points ahead of the Tories suggests the singers may not be that untypical. It is a bad blow to John Major's hopes that evidence of economic recovery would help the Tories hold the seat left vacant by the death of his former political secretary Judith Chaplin. Yesterday both parties were in private agreement that the result would be close.

Tories in the 1980s were notoriously bad at fighting election campaigns but a shake-up at Central Office has helped to change all that. Gerry Malone, MP for Winchester, has arrived as Julian Davidson's minder and the team includes Chris Hopson, the Oleg Gordievski of centre party politics. Hopson, a former SDP man who was 'turned' by the Tories, is a local boy whose speciality is 'war gaming' on the basis of his insight into what the Liberal Democrats will do next. The Tory door-knocking team at Newbury is highly efficient, even clinical.

Indeed, this is a pretty sanitised campaign. Typically, canvassers jump from their van and fan out across the street, moving from door to door at breakneck pace asking first if the Tories can count on the occupants' support, second if they wish to meet the candidate. Usually it seems they do not, with the result that Mr Davidson spends a lot of his time walking up and down the middle of the road. In the Andover Road area of Newbury on Wednesday evening a young canvasser ran back down the garden path from one front door shouting over his shoulder with noticeable lack of warmth: 'Thank you for your good wishes.' A Tory voter? 'Yeah - or maybe I was just being sarcastic' he replied. Not a house for the candidate to visit.

On one level this is highly civilised; why after all should voters meet the candidate if they don't want to? On the other hand it means that Mr Davidson rarely, if ever, argues with anyone on the doorstep. At another semi a voter in his fifties, who declined to give his name, told a canvasser: 'When you abandon rail privatisation and stop thinking market forces will solve everything I'll give you a second thought.' But again, the candidate was not within earshot.

Despite having a personable competent - and above all local - candidate, the Liberal Democrats started with a number of disadvantages. First, the track record of spectacular by-election victories in the 1987-92 Parliament led to a widespread supposition that they would win on Thursday, making the Tories the underdogs - a convenient position from which to start. They have failed to find a single issue - like the poll tax in Ribble Valley or Mrs Thatcher in Eastbourne - which has overwhelmed the by-election to their advantage. Matthew Taylor MP, Mr Rendel's minder, brushes aside suggestions that his party has failed to excite. 'When reporters complain that the campaign is dull we know we're doing it about right' he insists. Finally, there are the economic indicators. According to Mr Davidson: 'My opponent is the only man in Britain who doesn't believe there is an economic recovery.'

Certainly, the big issue is whether the voters believe in the 'green branches' of recovery. Although it is well below the national average, and fell 1.8 per cent in the constituency this month, unemployment is still an issue. In the racing heartlands of Lambourn and Highclere the vote for Mr Davidson is firm,

particularly now that Norman Lamont has slashed taxes on British bloodstock.

Newbury town is equally safe for the Liberal Democrats. The battleground is likely to be in the commuter villages and suburbs - in some of which house prices have dropped by 40 per cent since the boom year of 1988 - before showing signs of recovery in the past few weeks.

Mr Rendel's face to face exchanges are less hand-picked than Mr Davidson's, though he does not always have better luck. At Basildon, he hands out posters to mums as they pick up their children from the local C of E primary school. One, Anna White, admits that she only took one 'because it's the easiest way to get away'. Though she is hesitant about the economic recovery - 'Can you trust any figures?' - she will almost certainly vote Tory. The recession was a world problem. It wasn't John Major's fault. 'I think people underestimate him.' She adds without irony: 'He's got a very hard task. Margaret Thatcher is a terrible predecessor to have because people listen to her as if she was still Prime Minister.'

But at Streatley, on a well- groomed, private 1980s housing estate, Mr Rendel fared better. Sandra Pretherick, who voted Tory in 1992, will vote Liberal on Thursday. Borrowing a penal metaphor from her husband's job as an assistant prison governor, she says she wants to give the Tories a 'short, sharp shock'. She knows too many people who have been made redundant and her husband fears gradual privatisation of the prison service: 'Quite honestly, he's worried for his job.'

Davidson dismisses fears that fringe candidates - two with the word 'Conservative' on the ballot paper - will dent the Tory vote. That despite the fact that the most persuasive, Robin Marlar, cricket writer and former Sussex captain, has been adopted by the Sun - which has been running a special Newbury edition backing his campaign for a Maastricht referendum.

Perhaps because they fear a photo-finish, both Mr Rendel and Mr Davidson seem more distracted and tenser on the road than when they are on show at the morning press conferences. By contrast the Labour candidate, Steve Bilcliffe, a solid local man who works for the union-sponsored Unity Trust bank, is the most cheerful of the three main candidates, no doubt because he has nothing to lose. The Labour campaign, run with the characteristic panache of Mr Bilcliffe's minder, Peter Mandelson, has even managed to set the agenda - not least on law and order.

On Thursday, in keeping with the image of the new model Labour Party, Tony Blair was wheeled out to join Mr Bilcliffe on a visit to support police battling to turn away several thousand New Age travellers from Hungerford Common, leaving the other candidates struggling to catch up. Mr Bilcliffe has also had some mild fun at the expense of his rivals on crime. Mr Davidson - whose one mini-clanger of the campaign was to suggest improbably that Wednesday's poor figures on rural crime was part of an 'international' problem - was a soft target.

But the real importance of the Labour vote - only six per cent in 1992 - is that it is likely be squeezed further as its supporters vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats. Mark Kibble, a chartered engineer in Streatley and a fervent Labour supporter and party member until he left two years ago out of 'lethargy', will vote for Rendel: 'He's a local man and I just don't want to see the Tory returned.'

The Liberal Democrats enter this weekend ahead. But the long- term importance may well be what decisions like Mr Kibble's mean for the future of the left in southern England.

Political Commentary, page 24

(Photograph omitted)

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