Back to their roots to test the political mood

Can the Tories capture Winchester? Will Sheffield stay Lib Dem? And who will win Cambridge? <i>Independent</i> writers Archie Bland, Mary Dejevsky and David Prosser investigate
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Indy Politics

Winchester: 'We've got no time for Lib Dems here'

Some pubs are natural hotbeds for political debate. The Cart and Horses, just across the road from my childhood home, is not that sort of pub. It's in Kings Worthy, a village just outside Winchester, which is normally a sedate, comfortable sort of place.

An election campaign Saturday, though, is a different matter. And in an election that is pitching the heirs apparent against the new pretenders, in a seat that last changed hands by a margin of just two votes after a tabloid crisis involving an indiscreet rent boy, it is a very different matter indeed.

So it proves when I arrive at the pub to meet Martin Tod, the Liberal Democrat candidate. I approach a table with a clipboard and a list of addresses. But when I ask if they are Liberal Democrats, they immediately look affronted.

"Not likely!" snaps an uncompromising looking old man who, I now notice, is wearing a "Time for Change" badge. "And I hope you're not one!" he adds. "We've got no time for Liberal Democrats around here!"

Such commitment from the Conservatives – there on behalf of Steve Brine, a 36-year-old alumnus of Central Office and erstwhile marketing man for golf courses – seems an awfully long way from 1997, the first election that really imprinted itself on my political memory. The seat had been in Tory hands for 47 years, and Gerry Malone, the sitting MP, was so rarely in the constituency that reporters visiting his house found cobwebs on the front door.

Meanwhile, an energetic young Liberal Democrat called Mark Oaten was campaigning hard. It was enough to win the seat by two votes. I remember the astonishment around town at so slender a margin, and the way it energised a sleepy electorate. Malone challenged the result in court, there was a by-election, and Oaten won the rematch by more than 21,000 votes. "People had a sense that challenging the result wasn't cricket," Oaten says now. He twice retained his seat comfortably.

But in 2006, in the most lurid British political scandal since David Mellor's toe-sucking downfall, the News of the World revealed that Oaten, married with children, had been having an affair with a male prostitute. Oaten quickly announced he would stand down at the next election, and it became clear that the Tories had a shot again.

But something hasn't quite clicked. "The Conservatives have thrown an awful lot at this seat over the last three years since I said I was quitting," Oaten says. "But there's something missing. It doesn't seem to be delivering them what they want."

And yet this is exactly the kind of seat that the Tories need to be winning on Thursday if David Cameron is to form a government on his own terms. "If Winchester goes Conservative, you're very close to an overall majority," says Khalid Aziz, a former regional news anchor and local grandee. "It feels like a Conservative area, so this is a real bellwether. And it's an extremely close race."

Back at the Cart and Horses, Martin Tod finally arrives. After an awkward face-off with his Tory rival, who has also made an appearance, he marches me off to find his supporters somewhere in the Cameroon throng. There are four of them.

"We're surrounded!" one of them says brightly.

Tod, another marketing man, used to be Vodafone's British branding chief; tucking into a club sandwich, though, the 45-year-old seems more like a faintly unworldly deputy headmaster. Boundary changes have left him with a notional majority of 8,000, but no one is predicting a victory of that margin. Still, he remains bullish about his chances, buoyed in part by Nick Clegg's debate successes.

"It's definitely had an impact," he says. "And yes, there are retired colonels, but there are also retired university lecturers. This is actually quite a socially diverse community."

Steve Brine, meanwhile, insists that after its 13-year rebellion, Winchester is ready to return to the blue column. "People here voted for Mark Oaten because they liked him, and he worked incredibly hard, but he screwed up," he says briskly.

Brine has a reputation for a certain spikiness on the local political scene, but his commitment is palpable. "People want this government out," he adds. "They get that the way to do it is to elect a Conservative."

Exactly what will happen in Winchester remains anyone's guess: everyone accepts that the race is on a knife edge. If the Liberal Democrats can hold on, there is a very real chance that Nick Clegg will have a major say in the formation of the next government. But if Winchester flips, David Cameron can feel optimistic about his prospects of an unobstructed route to Downing Street.

Archie Bland

Sheffield Hallam: 'No appetite to unseat Nick Clegg'

There were supposed to be Daleks at Sheffield station, to promote a locally developed computer-game, but the train was late, and I missed them. Which was a pity, because you need a reminder of the possibilities of time travel and other worlds if, like me, you have not been in the steel city for a while.

Arriving in Sheffield by train is not like it used to be. A vast water cascade curves its way up to city level. If you dodge the skateboarders on their way down, the broad slope provides a safe walkway up to the newest buildings of Sheffield Hallam University, the Winter Garden complex, and the headquarters of the Digital Campus, intended to diversify the city further out of steel.

Many moons ago, when I took part in a youth exchange trip to the then-Soviet Union, the city gave me a bunch of glossy leaflets advertising Sheffield as a "City on the Move". To my 18-year-old self, it didn't seem quite like that, but now, well, it's moved in lots of ways: not just architecturally, but socially and politically.

An outsider might see Nick Clegg, MP for Sheffield Hallam, leader of the Liberal Democrats and flavour of this election, as the personification of that change. More telling, to my mind, is the fact that Hallam – held for most of the 20th century by the Conservatives – was ever won by the Lib Dems at all, that the Lib Dems now control the city council, and that the party has high hopes of winning a second seat – Sheffield Central.

When I cast my first vote (and for many years afterwards) Sheffield was rock-solid Labour – and this is old Labour we are talking about. The first election rally I attended at Sheffield City Hall was addressed, in typically rousing style, by Barbara Castle – though I did also go to hear Iain MacLeod, the Conservative firebrand, for balance. Hallam, leafy and spacious, was the exception that kept the rest of Sheffield so Labour.

Sheffield 10 was always the most sought-after post-code, and – although some of what makes Hallam different has been diluted by gentrification elsewhere in the city – it is still a world away from the grittiness and poverty elsewhere. It has one of the highest levels of owner-occupation, one of the highest proportions of professionals, one of the lowest unemployment rates and some of the highest house prices found anywhere outside London.

Our home, for most of my teenage years, was in Broomhill, the part of Hallam closest to the city centre. Mostly Victorian and with a very established feel, Broomhill includes the main part of the city's red-brick university, a major hospital and the Botanical Gardens. It was described to me during my latest visit as perhaps the "most Lib-Dem" part of Hallam.

But recent boundary changes detached the ward from Hallam and added it to Sheffield Central, which is why the Lib Dems think they have a chance of another seat. But this same change might also have made life awkward for Nick Clegg, as it left Hallam more Tory. But no one, not even the Conservative candidate, Nicola Bates, thought he could lose.

Hallam, like Sheffield, seems comfortable in its new Liberal Democrat skin. Richard Marsden, political reporter for the local paper, the Star, said that Sheffielders' well-developed social conscience, the large numbers of Hallam residents employed in the upper echelons of the public sector, and then Clegg's strong performance in the debates, all militated against a Conservative restoration.

Also, according to the other parties, the Tories don't seem to be trying especially hard in Hallam, to the point where rumours circulate about a Cameron-Clegg pact. In theory, it would take only an 8 per cent swing for the Conservatives to unseat Nick Clegg – not impossible if Cameron were riding high – and far less than the 18 per cent swing that Richard Allan achieved when he took Hallam for the Lib Dems in 1997. But the appetite just doesn't seem to be there.

Jack Scott, the Labour candidate in Hallam, knows he hasn't a hope of winning, and is also standing for the council in a more Labour part of town. But he has views on how the city's politics has changed. It's not nearly as tribal as it used to be, says Scott, who runs a foundation for social inclusion. He also notes that New Labour never really took off in Sheffield, despite increased numbers of owners occupiers. But nor have the New Conservatives won many hearts. "Sheffield doesn't like Cameron," he says, "they see through him". That applies in Hallam, too.

Paul Scriven, leader of the city council and the Liberal Democrats' hopeful in Sheffield Central, agrees that the city's traditional loyalties have gone the way of the steel industry. "It's not so unionised, it's no longer a one-party state," he says. But he also observes that Labour is only now getting to grips with its loss of the city council. For the first 18 months after it lost overall control, in 2002, he says, "they were still talking about our people, our council houses, our city, still behaving as though Sheffield is a red city". Even now, he says, "they still want to fight the Tories, but we Liberal Democrats are not Tories".

Both the social changes and Labour's miscalculations help explain the Liberal Democrats' success in Hallam. The party gained ground through the 1980s almost without anyone really noticing. It started winning council seats in Nether Edge and Beauchief, middle-class and gentrifying wards, where voters felt "old Labour" no longer spoke for them. The Conservatives' majority in Hallam also started to decline, in part because Thatcherism was deemed to have hit the city especially hard.

The Lib Dems' breakthrough in Hallam came in 1997, when the country swept Tony Blair's New Labour to power. The same forces were at work here, but Hallam could never be Labour, old or new. Instead, it embraced the Liberal Democrats, who were by then the second party.

If it is clear how and why Hallam went Liberal Democrat, it was less clear how a young buck outsider, such as Nick Clegg, had been selected for one of the party's few safe seats and even increased his predecessor's majority. How come Hallam had embraced Clegg so readily in 2005? Well-to-do southern background, Euro-crat – there was much about Clegg for Sheffielders, even Hallam Sheffielders, not to like.

There is a little anti-Clegg feeling. It is noted that, while his predecessor's family lived in Sheffield, Clegg's is in London, where his children go to school. But Paul Scriven – talking in the party's Sharrowvale office, which is abuzz with volunteers of all ages – says that Clegg, then MEP for the East Midlands, had been "head and shoulders" above the other candidates. Nor was he a complete outsider, as his East Midlands beat included Chesterfield, just down the road. He was selected overwhelmingly. "If you come here, roll your sleeves up and stand up for Sheffield, you are accepted. It's the critics people feel are outsiders. No one says that about Nick."

The debates were popular with Sheffield voters. Adam, a student of aeronautics, told me that he and his five housemates had found Clegg by far the most impressive. But the sale, for them, hadn't been clinched. They still worried that a Lib Dem vote would be a wasted vote – a view the party had hoped was in the past.

Strangely, it seems, the opinion polls in Sheffield did not shift as much as they did nationally in the wake of the first TV debate. The reason given by all parties, from their different perspectives, was that Sheffielders were already well acquainted with Clegg. For Lib Dem voters, it came as no surprise that he had performed so well – that is why they voted for him in the first place. For the other parties, well, they too thought they knew Clegg and still weren't convinced that his politics went any further than likeability.

Mary Dejevsky

Cambridge: 'We need a liberal Tory'

Cambridge does not feel like a town that is consumed by the general election that will be called two days hence. But this does feel like my town. I grew up in Cambridge and many friends and family still live here. And 23 years after my first published piece of journalism – an interview with the three candidates for the constituency at the 1987 general election for my school magazine – I've been back regularly over the past few months to find out how this year's contest is shaping up.

Naturally there have been changes since 1987, including to the boundaries. But one parallel is striking. This is the sort of constituency the opposition should be targeting if it feels it can win a decent working majority. And just as Labour found Cambridge a tough nut to crack two decades ago, so the Conservatives look unlikely to win the seat this time around.

Labour's disappointment back then was palpable. I witnessed it first hand. Though I managed to bat off most of my activist mother's entreaties to deliver leaflets on behalf of Labour – pompously pleading the need for journalistic impartiality – there was no escaping the gloom at home following a crushing defeat for the party both nationally and locally.

Robert Rhodes-James, who had held the seat for the Conservatives since 1976, comfortably saw off both the Labour candidate, Chris Howard, a local teacher, and Shirley Williams, whose bid for the seat on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance would be her last attempt to return to the Commons.

Today, Nick Hillman, the Conservative candidate, insists that Cambridge is a three-way marginal, despite the party not having won back the seat since Anne Campbell took it for Labour in 1992. She defended the seat successfully in 1997 and 2001, but then paid the price for the support she felt obliged, as a junior minister, to give Tony Blair on tuition fees and the war in Iraq. She lost to the Liberal Democrat David Howarth in 2005.

Mr Hillman, a former teacher, would certainly like to portray himself as another Rhodes-James. "Cambridge needs a liberal Tory in the tradition of Robert," he says. "And David Cameron is certainly more Cambridge than Michael Howard or Iain Duncan-Smith were." But Mr Hillman is not getting much help from the party's big guns. Indeed, while he is working hard – and polls suggest he has won some support back – the incumbent Lib Dems appear not to consider him a threat. Julian Huppert, their candidate, points out that the Tories have just one of 52 councillors locally.

Mr Huppert does, however, have other worries, such as the emergence of a credible Green Party candidate. Though the Greens managed just 2.9 per cent of the vote in 2005 the party is making Cambridge one of its key targets. Their candidate, the environmental campaigner Tony Juniper, for many years ran Friends of the Earth, and his backers are pouring resources into the seat for the first time.

But while it's easy to imagine large numbers of the academic population backing him, how is Mr Juniper going down in the council estates?

"The ward where we've done best is in fact the most socially divided," he says, pointing out that in the ward in question, Abbey, the Greens won last year's county council election, beating the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. Their candidate was Mr Huppert, he points out with some relish.

Mr Huppert was a late selection for the Lib Dems, who had expected the incumbent Mr Howarth to stand again until he decided he had had enough of Westminster. By contrast, Daniel Zeichner was the first Labour candidate in the country to be selected to fight at this election, having won the nomination in 2006.

What all the candidates have to cope with is Cambridge's split personality: the dreaded divide between town and gown. A third of Cambridge's 70,000 registered voters might be thought of as linked to the university – including the students, with the election falling during term time – but that means two-thirds are not. "Cambridge is not wealthy and it's not just a university town," says Mr Huppert. "People forget that there are still 8,000 council homes here."

To me, however, this does not feel like a city where there is a passionate desire to change the colour of its MP. Could it be 1987 all over again? Back then, Shirley Williams told me that Labour could not expect to form a national government with any confidence until it could take a city like Cambridge. This time, the Tories don't need the constituency to be sure of a majority, but they certainly remain a million miles away from regaining the stranglehold with which they once held it.

David Prosser