Clouds still hover over the Conservatives in Wirral

Fears about the state of the NHS and education are persuading Tories to switch to Labour
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Indy Politics
Labour are on course for a spectacular by-election victory in Wirral South as canvassing yesterday showed that the early trend of disgruntled Conservative voters switching to Labour seems to be continuing.

At the centre of this swing is the barometer ward of Bebington, a mixed residential and industrial area in the north of the constituency. It was once a safe Tory area but in the last three years Labour has won three council seats in local elections and Bebington is now an important battleground for the two main parties. Many people in the area are what politicians call the "aspirant" classes; people who have moved from Liverpool or Ellesmere Port for a better standard of living, schools and housing.

Yesterday under a grey cloudy sky the mood in Village Road, Bebington, reflected dismal prospects for the Conservatives and their 8,183 majority. Claire Francis, 24, a tour operator, voted Conservative in 1992 but will now vote for Labour's candidate Ben Chapman. Her reasons echo the views of many people interviewed by The Independent.

"It's all about the state of the health service. From what I have seen it's time for a change," he said.

She believes that Tony Blair is charismatic, thinks John Major has lost the plot and while accepting that many people, including herself, are fed-up with politicians, she says a new government is essential. "Otherwise I will be in despair," she said.

This desire for change is not confined to the young. A retired newsagent George Thompson, 67, has always voted Conservative - until now. He cites pay in the NHS and education but is also tired of the "sleaze" surrounding the government and its attitude of "giving jobs for the boys". His fears about what a Labour government might do in power have been allayed by the party's reforms. "Tony Blair is much more in the middle now, but I would not have voted for Neil Kinnock."

Mr Thompson's disenchantment reflects the findings of an opinion poll at the weekend which suggested that Labour could win a comfortable majority on 27 February. But as the poll also hinted he is not so sure who to vote for in the general election - though he will probably still opt for Labour.

Many Tories have still to make up their mind. Brian Sumner, 49, a clerk, is concerned about the NHS, and also law and order. "The health service seems to be deteriorating and it appears more dangerous as far as policing is concerned. I fear that the fabric of society is beginning to crumble at the edges," he says.

But as a new homeowner, Mr Sumner is unsure what a change of government might bring. "Is the cost of living going to rise under a Labour government? Will interest rates go up? I just don't know who to believe."

The Conservatives have fought the campaign by trying to localise national issues and in particular have hammered aggressively on the likely fate of grammar schools in the constituency under a Labour government. Helen Owen, 35, a Labour voter, said grammar schools were the first issue raised at her door by a Tory canvasser, who said the schools' fate would be uncertain under a Blair administration. "Doesn't that worry you?" he asked her. After a brief conversation the canvasser left telling her: "You should stay indoors more and watch more TV."

Mrs Owens said: "I was quite surprised by the attitude. He was quite rude."

Though the strategy has provoked a further "clarification" of Labour's stance on selective schools and despite claims by the Conservative candidate Les Byrom that the message is getting through, The Independent found little evidence that the grammar school debate is influencing votes - though many voters were worried about the general standard of education.

One Tory supporter who asked not to be named said it would not decide her vote. "What worries me is John Major. He is just a puppet."

Roy Clarke, 51, an engineer, once voted Conservative but now feels they have gone too far over privatisation and sees Labour as a party of moderation and Conservative values - with a small c. "The unions needed taming but the Tories are now out of touch. They call themselves Conservatives but they are the radicals."

There is a feeling among Labour voters that the tide is turning their way and claim that friends and family are helping switch votes. Andrew McGuffie, 52, an insurance agent, said: "My father-in-law has always voted Conservative. He is now talking about voting Labour."

Yet many Conservatives are finding it hard to contemplate changing sides despite their anger at the party. Ivor and Helen Pierce said they would "grudgingly" vote for John Major again even though they did not much like him. They said they did not trust Tony Blair.

Such die-hard sentiments are the reason why Labour activists caution against too much optimism in a seat which does not feature in their list of "must-win" target constituencies for the general election. But in their more sanguine moments they are hoping that the voters of Bebington might just swing it for them.