Eastleigh By-Election: Labour vote crucial in land of rail and sail: Liberal Democrats have a firm grip on local authority power but do not expect a walk-over

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Indy Politics
'YOUR chance to elect a councillor who is not a Liberal Democrat' said Tory leaflets in a mini by-election yesterday for the Hedge End seat on Eastleigh town council.

An old railway town like Eastleigh might sound like a natural Labour constituency, but Labour had been furiously camp aigning by telephone to ensure that this, the 15th seat, held by a Tory, did not go Liberal Democrat like the other 14. Even the Liberal Democrats thought such a result would verge on the embarrassing - but victory was theirs with 473 votes to the Tories' 212.

Matthew Taylor MP, the Liberal Democrats' chairman of campaigns, delivered his verdict: 'This is a good indication of the mood in Eastleigh and is a flying start to the by-election campaign.'

The party yesterday officially presented David Chidgey, its candidate for the parliamentary by- election. The Liberal Democrats think they can win, but not without a hard fight, and one principally directed towards preventing the Tories from slipping through the middle.

Liberal Democrat local government supremacy - control of Hampshire County Council and effective control, with Labour help, of Eastleigh Borough Council - does not alter the fact that if all other things were equal this would be essentially John Major territory: the vastly expanded, but ordinary, railway town of Eastleigh with its rows of brick-built railway houses and glass-roofed shopping mall, the former villages with mostly respectable council estates and vast new owner-occupier developments, the 13 warehousing industrial estates, the strip of millionaire marinaland where the Hamble river meets Southampton water, the shrunken ribbons of green belt and woods dotted in between. Much of humanity seems to be represented here.

The archetypal south of England mixture with its clean streets, tidy gardens and pebbledash seems to have produced a community outwardly at peace with itself - no outrageously high crime rates, not too many drug problems and not, at about 6 per cent, particularly high unemployment.

But beneath the atrium of Eastleigh town's Swan Centre and the swathes of chimneyless roofs in the housing developments lie the concerns about future, pensionable, job security, about contract labour, about negative equity, about higher taxes and VAT. Mr Chid gey, 51, a local civil engineer, named some more at his first press conference yesterday, pointing to severe shortages of nursery school places and underprovision for children with special needs.

The mild-mannered Stephen Reid, 42, was picked by local Tories last Friday to defend the late Stephen Milligan's 17,002 general election majority against the catalogue of local and national concerns. A former data processing manager, he was recently made redundant and is on his second marriage. Despite the rebounding of 'Back to Basics', this last is likely to be the least of his problems.

Among the men emerging from one of the town's mainstay employers, British Rail Maintenance Limited, come the signs of bitterness towards Mr Milligan and of things to come for his would-be successor. Employees are gagged from speaking publicly about their jobs but not from getting angry. Amid mutterings of 'this is against our contracts' comes the observation: 'You won't find many in this place voting Tory.'

The root of the problem is uncertainty about BRM Limited's future. British Rail officially puts it and five similar businesses up for sale in a few weeks. In the meantime, 170 jobs have recently been lost because of a fall-off in heavy maintenance contracts from Network South East.

This is no ordinary company but the soul of Eastleigh, its acres of railway line, rolling stock, Victorian buildings and tin-roofed bicycle sheds the reason the town was built. About 1,100 people are still employed, amid fears of the demise of a tradition of training and engineering apprenticeships. The redundancies are an example, as Mr Chidgey put it, of traditional industrial jobs 'slipping away.'

The cable manufacturer Pirelli shed about 200 people last year when it closed a telephone cable operation at Bishopsgate. The main site, across the railway in Eastleigh town, employs about 1,000 people.

For others, Stephen Milligan's death signals the end of a long tradition of largely uncritical Tory voting. Kenneth Evans, one of these, voted for Mr Milligan when he entered Parliament in 1992. Mr Evans knew and liked Mr Milligan, who had helped him personally. He won't be voting Tory this time.

'I'm a pensioner,' he says as if to explain it all. But his views on what he sees as a profligate Hampshire County Council puts him off voting for the other two parties as well. If that view is widespread it is depressing for Labour. Mr Evans speaks from what can rank as the sole Labour stronghold in the constituency, Woolston, where the Vosper Thorneycroft shipbuilding sheds tower over the small shops and terraced homes.

The logical conclusion of a doughty campaign by Labour will be to let in Mr Reid in spite of the deep unpopularity of the Government. But the party has already thrown down the gauntlet. Walworth Road by-election gurus such as John Braggins, who will act as agent, dug in three weeks ago, acquiring extra office space and kicking off a poster campaign well in advance of the announcement of Labour's candidate next Tuesday.

Fortified by its 21 per cent share of the vote at the 1992 election - making this contest in a different class from Newbury or Christchurch - Labour's prime objective is to turn into reality the finding in the NOP/Independent poll on 21 February that 41 per cent of voters would vote Labour if they thought the party could beat the Conservatives. A stock line on the doorstep will be 'name a Liberal Democrat policy'.

The Liberal Democrats dismiss most of this as laughable. Labour has already dubbed Mr Chidgey, who has fought the seat twice before, as the 'three-time loser', but his press conference indicated he might not need the kind of 'minding' supplied by Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, yesterday.

Less charitable by-election watchers suggest the same might not turn out to be true of Mr Reid. Labour is the principal enemy, however. John Major territory it may be, Labour territory it definitely is not, Mark Payne, the Liberal Democrat agent, says.

'It's a question of credibility. For the disenchanted Thatcherites (and Majorites) to vote for you in a three-party system you have to be second.' But the party will leave nothing to chance as it watches carefully for the first sign of Labour burn-out.

1992 election: S Milligan (Con) 38,998 (51.3 per cent); D Chidgey (LD) 21,296 (28.0); Ms J Sugrue (Lab) 15,768 (20.7). Con maj 17,702. Electorate 91,376. Turn-out 82.9 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)