Conservatives helped by expenses scandal in fight to take back former seats

In the third and final part of his series on the Tories' target seats, Brian Brady is on the M5 stretch of the 'golden ribbon', from Birmingham to the West Country

Wednesday afternoon: Kidderminster Hospital. A cluster of outpatients relax on comfortable chairs in their £19m "Treatment Centre".

It is a far cry from 2001, when locals were so concerned about the future of their hospital that they elected an Independent MP to protect it. Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern candidate who snatched the Wyre Forest seat from Labour – and held on to it four years later – can surely retire safe in the knowledge that he has completed his mission.

Except that the retired consultant rheumatologist has no intention of stepping down. "I've so many battles going on at the moment I'd like to see through," Dr Taylor, 75, said last night.

But marginal seats such as Wyre Forest and others along the "golden ribbon", which winds from the M62 in Yorkshire down the M6 and M5 to the West Country, are key to any party hoping to win the general election.

The Tory onslaught is more than evident on the short walk from Kidderminster station to the town centre: three identical posters show "Danielle from Brighton" proclaiming: "I've never voted Tory before, but we've got to fix our broken society."

The Tories held the semi-rural territory around the towns of Kidderminster, Bewdley and Stourport for almost 40 years until they lost it to Labour in 1997, and Wyre Forest is now high on their list of target seats.

While the Tory candidate, Mark Garnier, conceded that his opponent was "a very hard-working MP", he is bullish: "Wyre Forest was heard loud and clear in 2001, but since then it has been off the main radar screen politically."

Less than 15 miles away, along the A448, lies another seat many Tories see as theirs by right. They have high hopes of taking Redditch, and the furore over the living arrangements and expenses claims of the sitting MP, Jacqui Smith – including a bath plug and two blue movies watched by her husband – have made it virtually impossible for Labour to defend.

The former home secretary admitted: "As the polls stand at the moment, it's more likely that I'll lose my seat than that I won't lose it."

The pre-election campaign has been dominated by expenses. "Guess what one of the main issues is on the doorstep tonight?" the Tory candidate, Karen Lumley, said on her blog, as the revelations came to a head. "Yes, it's our MP's expenses and that bath plug is raised again and again."

Ms Smith's majority has dropped to a precarious 2,128 – Labour's 29th most vulnerable seat – and the Tories need a 2.56 per cent swing to take it.

The Lib Dem candidate, Nicholas Lane, said: "Labour might have fancied their chances of holding on to the seat again, but the expenses thing makes it very difficult. No one needs to make porn and bath plugs a big part of their campaign because it is there on the doorstep."

Redditch, like so many other seats along the "golden ribbon", represents the outer reaches of the Blairite landslide of 1997; traditional Tory possessions that overnight became comfortable Labour redoubts – and remained so for two more general elections.

One of those redoubts is Birmingham Edgbaston. The sitting MP, Gisela Stuart, has had her disagreements with the Labour hierarchy, but her biggest battle of 2010 will be to protect a majority of barely 1,500 votes.

The Tory candidate is from a family steeped in the politics of the city; Deirdre Alden's husband is a city councillor and her son is the parliamentary candidate in Birmingham Erdington. The Ashcroft effect is already an issue, with Ms Stuart complaining that Tory spending meant the campaign was "not a level playing field".

Mrs Alden, who rejects the charge, said: "Our local Labour MP is trying to distance herself from Gordon Brown – she calls herself 'independent-thinking' on her literature – but, at the end of the day, she goes into the lobby and votes with Labour. If people vote for Gisela Stuart, they will end up with Gordon Brown, and people, by and large, don't want Gordon Brown."

The Opposition's message is similar in Bristol, where a national poll late last year suggested Labour would lose all but one seat to the Tories. Although the party has recovered a bit since then, the Bristol North West seat (majority 3,769) being vacated by its retiring MP, Doug Naysmith, remains vulnerable. And since then the new Labour candidate, Sam Townend, has resigned from Lambeth Council after reports that he had claimed some £15,000 in allowances, despite turning up to just two meetings.

"My family has always voted Labour and I will vote for them this time," said Philip Evans, a Bristol cabbie. "I'm just running out of friends who say they are going to do the same. I don't think they can save themselves."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before