Constituency upsets: 'It was all about fees, Iraq and trust'

The biggest poll shocks were the losses of safe Labour seats in London and Manchester. Raymond Whitaker hears why
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Indy Politics

In Caffe Didsbury, which apparently has the best cappuccino in blustery south Manchester, 23-year-old Rebecca Harwood was trying to explain the biggest shock of the 2005 election.

In Caffe Didsbury, which apparently has the best cappuccino in blustery south Manchester, 23-year-old Rebecca Harwood was trying to explain the biggest shock of the 2005 election.

"Students felt Blair just followed Bush into Iraq," said Ms Harwood, in her final year of a politics degree at Manchester University. "They are also angry over tuition and top-up fees, which first-year students will have to pay all the way through."

Until - or unless - Tony Blair is forced to hand over to Gordon Brown, the most visible victim of the "Iraq factor" in this election will be Oona King, who lost her Bethnal Green and Bow seat to George Galloway purely because of the fury of Muslim voters over the war.

The most unexpected casualty, however, must be Keith Bradley, MP for Manchester Withington since 1987, whose 2001 majority was just over 11,500. Not until a recount was announced in the early hours of Friday, sending TV cameras rushing to the scene, did anyone have an inkling he was in trouble: he ended up losing by 667 votes to John Leech of the Liberal Democrats in the country's biggest swing.

South Manchester has the largest student population in Europe, but the Liberal Democrats also exploited local transport problems, the gradual closure of Withington hospital and fears for the future of Christie cancer hospital. This resonated in the large houses of Withington, Fallowfield and Didsbury, which contain numerous health workers along with student shares and academics and their families.

"For some voters Iraq was the main issue," the victorious Mr Leech told The Independent on Sunday, "but for many it simply reinforced their loss of trust in Tony Blair over other issues."

Labour lost the London seat to Mr Galloway's Respect insurgency by a slightly higher margin, 823 votes, but Ms King remained popular even with those who had voted against her.

"Personalities had nothing to do with it," said Salim, 41, a Bangladesh-born shopkeeper in Brick Lane who sells Islamic devotional books and tapes. "I like Oona - I've voted for her before - but the Iraq war changed everything. I might vote Labour again, but this time I had to protest."

Sid Vangelder, who during his 79 years in the East End has watched Muslims replace the Jewish community, stayed with Labour. But he expected Mr Galloway to win. "Tony Blair was more or less forced to fight in Iraq alongside George Bush," he said, standing at a market stall in Bethnal Green Road, "but he still won't say sorry. I'm not surprised at the way it went."

The higher the element of protest in the result, the greater the chance that it will be reversed next time. "It was pretty close," said the Brick Lane shopkeeper. "I think if Oona had said just once that she was against the war, she would still be the MP here."

In Manchester, Mr Leech argued eloquently that he could hold the seat at the next election, pointing out that it was part of a widening cluster of Liberal Democrat constituencies, including neighbouring Cheadle, where a paper-thin majority of 33 grew to over 4,000 this time. The party has also made steady gains on Manchester city council.

What will be different next time, however, is that there will be no Tony Blair. That will be a relief to Labour voters like Benson Osawe, academic affairs officer at Manchester University's students' union, who said: "If Blair didn't listen before, he isn't going to listen now.

"I don't want him to stay long. I cast my vote for Gordon Brown. I think Labour will get this seat back if he takes over," he said.

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