Can Ashcroft put a spell on Pendle? Tories spend heavily in the Pennines

In the second part of his series on the Conservatives' top target seats, Brian Brady tests the mood of voters in Lancashire and the West Midlands

"I don't know who's spending the money and I don't care." Joey Riley, a "recently unemployed" mechanic scratching a living in the Lancashire town of Nelson, is unmoved by the row over the amount being spent to win his vote. "Is it against the law? Is it harming anybody? No. All I am interested in is who's going to help me get a new job, or promise not to cut my dole while I'm waiting to find one."

Pendle, a collection of towns and villages straddling the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, famous for its 17th-century witches, is an unlikely attraction for a multi-millionaire familiar with the exotic delights of Florida, Belize and the Caribbean. But the high chance of a Conservative MP by the summer has made the constituency a key target for Lord Ashcroft, the party's deputy chairman, and the man planning and funding the Tory push in a series of vulnerable Labour seats around the country.

A classic "bellwether seat", whose results often reflect the mood of the country, Pendle is 33rd on the list of Labour seats targeted by the Tories. Gordon Prentice MP sits on a majority of less than 2,200 and a swing of 2.65 per cent would win it for the Tories for the first time since 1992.

Nelson was once dubbed "little Moscow" because of the radical politics of the textile workers that dominated the area. Ninety years on, the mills have gone and with them the militancy; Pendle appears to be in the final stages of a journey to the right.

But an apparently losing battle has been lifted to national prominence by the monumental indignation of Mr Prentice, who has railed against the scale of spending on the campaign to elect the Tory candidate, Andrew Stephenson, in a pre-election period when there are no legal limits on expenditure.

Mr Stephenson's homepage offers voters the chance to "make a difference now by donating to this campaign". The target, displayed on a simple barometer graphic, is a modest £3,000. A closer inspection of Conservative accounts reveals that the local party's income rose steeply to almost £50,000 in 2007 and then beyond £80,000 the following year, aided by grants totalling more than £35,000 direct from Central Office. Labour and the Liberal Democrats insist that the true figure is far higher.

"Neither Pendle Conservatives, nor I, have ever received money directly from Lord Ashcroft," Mr Stephenson said. "We do receive a grant from the central Conservative Party to help pay for local campaigns. [It] is common practice among political parties to focus their resources on the seats they hope to win in a general election."

Mr Prentice's website includes a "Buying the Election gallery", with pictures of almost 40 glossy leaflets, magazines and newsletters sent to Pendle homes by the Tories in the past three years (including one exhorting residents to "shop local", which was printed by a firm in Surrey). But he has also widened his campaign into a counter-attack against the "tax-dodger" he holds responsible for the torrent of information. He is clearly discomforted by the distant peer seeking to take over this corner of East Lancs.

"The Ashcroft effect works on a subliminal level," Mr Prentice said. "It's like getting leaflets from Tesco; you think you're ignoring them, but you remember the brand name. If you were to stop people and ask what are the issues on the leaflets, they wouldn't know. The job of the literature is to familiarise people with the candidate and also give an impression of a huge amount of activity."

The theory was borne out on the streets of Nelson. Most of the passers-by asked about the leaflets confirmed that they had seen them, but only a few recognised Mr Stephenson – by name or position. Sarah Parry, 21, identified the Tory candidate as "our MP". "He's been around a lot," she says. "I've seen the leaflets but I've also seen him out here. He seems to be very popular."

Outside the Lord Nelson pub, which legend has it gave the town its name (but is now known by many as "the Zoo"), Alan Carmichael claims the Ashcroft money is "irrelevant".

He said: "I know the Tory is called Stephenson, he's not from round here but he lives near here and he seems an OK bloke. I'll be voting Tory for the first time ever, but no money or brochures could make me do that: I just think it's time for a change."

Pendle has a large rural fringe, but it still suffers from many of the social problems experienced by all the cities nearby – notably unemployment, anti-social behaviour and a lack of local trade. Bus and train passengers arriving at the grandly named "Nelson Interchange" last week had to file through a mobile knife-arch. In the town centre, in the shadow of Pendle Hill, a Woolworths sign ambitiously proclaimed "Open Sundays, 10am-4pm". On closer inspection, it emerged that the shop, like all other Woolies stores in the UK – was empty, along with several other units in the town.

Pendle is only one of 20 Labour seats in the North-west that are vulnerable to a Tory surge. Barely six months ago, the polls suggested the party would lose 17 of them, as it hurtled towards seemingly certain general election defeat. The recent recovery has not guaranteed the future of any of them.

The situation is similarly precarious further down the M6 corridor, where a series of new towns, dormitory towns and even established Labour strongholds north of Birmingham remain under threat.

In Stafford, the Tories are hoping to regain a seat which they held for 42 years until 1997, when a youthful David Cameron let it slip amid the Labour landslide. David Kidney's majority has dwindled to 1,818 and a swing of 1.9 per cent would win the seat back – hence the inevitable support from Central Office's Ashcroft fund.

The Tory candidate, Jeremy Lefroy, admits receiving some funding from Conservative HQ last year, although he insists it was dwarfed by local support. Party accounts show a total of almost £35,000 in grants from the centre in 2007 and 2008, plus £20,000 "notional income" which turns out to be another Tory HQ grant amounting to free use of services in 2007.

"There is an unequal playing field if one party has a lot more money than the others," Mr Kidney said.

But, in this constituency at least, the Ashcroft effect will be a secondary factor. The battle, only slightly complicated by the presence of a British National Party candidate, is dominated by the issue of Stafford Hospital, where poor standards of care have been blamed for causing up to 1,200 deaths. The Tories have called for a public inquiry into the scandal, but Labour has refused to back the call, a move campaigners call "shameful". "That is what we have come to expect from our Labour MPs," said Julie Bailey, founder of the group Cure the NHS, "a reluctance to hear the truth."

Further south, in the heart of the Black Country, an emblematic Labour figure has already given up the ghost before the election is called. The Treasury minister Ian Pearson, who inflicted the Tories' worst-ever defeat with a 29 per cent swing in the Dudley by-election 16 years ago, will not stand this time after blaming the pressures of Parliament for the break-up of his marriage. He leaves a party struggling to hold on to both seats in the town, and the Conservatives scent blood.

Earlier this year, when the Tories unveiled 759 posters of David Cameron in target marginals, three of them turned up in Mr Pearson's Dudley South, and three in Dudley North, represented by Ian Austin, the minister for the West Midlands and a long-time Gordon Brown ally. Labour's healthy lead in both seats has dwindled to the point that a swing of barely 5 per cent would take them back to the Tories. The threat is indicative of the Government's plight in a region assessed as the worst hit by the recession in terms of job losses, and enduring one of the weakest housing-market recoveries in the country.

Mr Pearson's seat is the more affluent of the two but also more vulnerable. "There are more 'upper working-class' there, and they are the ones identified as most likely to flip to the Tories," a regional party source said last night. "The Tories believe they are on to something here." In the past month, Mr Cameron, George Osborne and the former leader Michael Howard have visited the constituency.

But Mr Austin, in a constituency where unemployment reaches double figures, is not safe. If underlying frustration with Labour's achievements remains, the argument that it is time for a change could take hold in a region like the West Midlands. "I have never even thought of voting for anyone else but Labour before," said John Barron, in the shadow of the town-centre memorial to Dudley's most famous son, the footballer Duncan Edwards. "But I've run out of patience. I'll never vote Tory, but not Labour. Not this time."