Dagenham by-election: Tory takes doorstep flak over 'uncaring' government: Labour set to retain seat vacated by Bryan Gould's departure as Lib-Dems threaten to take second place

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PETER FAIRRIE, the Tory candidate, has encountered a modicum of political incorrectness on the doorsteps of Dagenham.

'My name might be Fairrie, but I'm not a fairy,' is his refrain, which makes up in accuracy what it lacks in wit. He adds: 'I can't help my name and I can't help my bloody public school accent.'

Mr Fairrie, a former captain in the 13th/18th Hussars, is on the left of the party, but argues nevertheless that Margaret Thatcher 'did a bloody good job'.

He believes the Labour MP, Tony Banks, is one of the best constituency MPs in London, but this admiration and his ability to josh with doorstep homophobes are unlikely to get him very far with the voters of Dagenham.

Senior citizens - of whom there are many in this piece of the East End which seems to have floated down the Thames - regale Mr Fairrie, and indeed canvassers of all parties, with the iniquities of government policies towards the elderly and infirm.

There is VAT on fuel, the 'talking out' of the Disability Bill in Parliament, the rundown and closure of local hospital departments, the rise in crime and vandalism, and the inability of the council even to mend fences. It seems to matter little that some blame may fairly be apportioned to the Labour-led local authority.

'The Government don't care about pensioners,' said Louisa Nevin, aged 74. 'We're living too long for them.' The concerns of more than one-fifth of the constituents who are of pensionable age centre on policies which will enable them to live longer and in a semblance of peace and comfort.

Judith Church, the telegenic and earnest Labour candidate, who won the candidacy in the wake of Bryan Gould's departure, sympathises enthusiastically with the plight of the pensioners.

Ms Church, 40, a national official with the Manufacturing Science Finance union, is aware that Mr Gould's somewhat abrupt departure for his native New Zealand might have cast doubt on the constituency's enthusiasm for Labour. On canvassing expeditions, she alludes to his 'retirement' rather than his 'resignation'.

Psephologists maintain that where there is such a departure, the vote for the relevant party tends to decline. The Labour camp is confident, however, that the voters' displeasure with the Government will be more than sufficient to overcome that.

Unless there is an unforeseen backlash against the local authorities, the extent of Labour's majority will depend largely on its ability to convey its ageing supporters to the poll on 9 June.

Dagenham is also very much a working-class area - about 60 per cent of residents are classified as manual workers. The economy, unlike most other parts of London, is heavily dependent on manufacturing which provides half the jobs. Ford's workforce, around 20 per cent of which lives in the constituency, has slumped from nearly 20,000 in 1983 to 9,000 now. Other factories along the A13, which bisects the south of the constituency, have fallen empty.

Mr Fairrie, however, contends that businesses seem to have weathered the recession. Ms Church counters that while the official unemployment rate in the constituency stands at 11.6 per cent, male unemployment is nearer 20 per cent.

The Liberal Democrat candidate, Peter Dunphy, could prove to be the meat in the electoral sandwich between the warring Labour and Conservative candidates. 'I'm very confident that we will come second,' says Mr Dunphy, but he believes he has an outside chance of winning.

(Photograph omitted)

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