Elections 1994: Conservatives on edge in comfortable suburbia: Martin Whitfield visits a Tory heartland where a 5 per cent swing could result in a change in power

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Indy Politics
BARNET and blue-rinse Conservatism have always gone together. The north London borough is full of the semi-detached houses beloved of trendy film-makers wanting to poke fun at suburbia.

Even the names of the electoral wards have a cosy feel about them and sound naturally Tory: Totteridge, Garden Suburb, Mill Hill and Brunswick Park. Finchley, within Barnet's boundaries, was Margaret Thatcher's parliamentary seat.

But the unthinkable could happen on Thursday. Barnet could go Labour. It is a long-shot, but there is a distinct possibility the Conservatives could lose control to a combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats. A swing of just over 5 per cent to Labour would be enough, and it is theoretically very achieveable given the state of the national opinion polls.

Badly affected by the recession in the South-east, victim of increasing crime and millions of pounds of negative equity, parts of Barnet reflect the nation-wide atmosphere of general disillusionment with the Government and politicians.

Julie Durham, 35, a teacher with three children living in a semi-detached house, expresses a general concern. 'We are appalled by the fact that people are sleeping rough in the doorways of building societies in Ballards Lane. My husband spoke to some of them and they are not drunks or junkies, but people in desperate circumstances who have lost their jobs or houses.'

'When we first moved here six years ago, there were a couple of charity shops. Now someone said there are 35.' Mrs Durham said she voted Labour in 1990, while her husband voted Tory. But this time they are both voting Labour.

'Barnet is middle England,' Tony Travers, of the Greater London Group of academics within the London School of Economics, said. 'Voting is more likely to reflect national politics in the absence of burning local issues.'

With the Government deeply unpopular, the possibility of a local referendum on John Major's administration must be bad news for Barnet Conservatives. But Don Goodman, the local party's deputy leader, is not convinced. He said similar predictions were made in 1990 when Labour was 18 points ahead in the opinion polls, but it still failed to make net gains in Barnet. 'The people of Barnet have voted in Tories since its formation in 1964,' he said. 'I don't think they will change their minds overnight. The average resident is not as silly as people make out and they will not vote just on national issues. This is a local election and Barnet is a well-run borough.'

Labour has 18 seats on the council of 60 members. The party needs to win four wards to take charge, five for absolute control. The Liberal Democrats control Childs Hill ward in the south of the borough with three seats.

Kitty Lyons and Katherine McGuirk, both Labour candidates in St Paul's, the most marginal ward with a Tory majority of 29, find it difficult to point to specific local issues in the campaign. Like the party's manifesto, the attack is on Barnet council's general meanness and obsession with saving money. They mention low spending on school buildings, but confess that the borough's academic record is above average. There are complaints about the planned closure of an open-air swimming pool and criticism of the conversion of the North Circular Road into an urban motorway, but there is little of the venom that local politics generates in Wandsworth, Westminster or Lambeth.

Alan Williams, the Labour leader, is only slightly more forthcoming about local controversies and prefers to go on the attack on national issues, such as the imposition of VAT on fuel - Barnet has the highest proportion of pensioners in outer London - and the planned closure of one of the two local hospitals.

He claimed council leaders did not speak up for residents on issues that might offend the Tory party nationally. 'They have stayed silent and voted out any criticism,' he added. 'They are pressing a self-destruct button. We are definitely going to win seats and we are confident that the Tories will not control Barnet after 5 May.'

(Photograph omitted)