From Hull to Sefton, why the M62 could decide the fate of the election

Paul Vallely gets behind the wheel to visit the constituencies at the top of the Conservatives' target list
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Indy Politics

The road to power in Britain today does not run towards Westminster. It runs from east to west. It starts near Hull at the seemingly solid Conservative seat of Haltemprice and Howden, seat of the maverick Tory David Davis, and traverses the Pennines, along the M62 motorway, to the newly created constituency of Sefton Central in rock-solid Labour Liverpool. This is the area where Election 2010 will be won or lost.

The M62 runs through a corridor of seats which were once traditional Tory territory but which fell to New Labour in the 1997 Blair landslide. When the Conservative election campaign began, the Tories' chief constituency strategist, Lord Ashcroft, decided to focus on a few score key seats which had to be won if David Cameron were to arrive on Downing Street with even the slimmest majority.

For the past two years these marginal constituencies have been central to the Ashcroft strategy which has funnelled millions of pounds of the cash donated by the Conservatives' non-dom deputy chairman and others into such crucial swing seats. For, in the end, the election will be decided, not by the broad shifts in national opinion polls, but by the precise outcome of a series of individual battles in key constituencies.

On an estate of neatly gardened bungalows in Bolton, Lancashire, one woman epitomises the fight. Susan Williams is the Tory candidate in Bolton West, a three-way marginal. During the English Civil War the town held out for the Parliamentarian cause in a staunchly Royalist region. "They're free-thinkers in Bolton," Mrs Williams says, to butter local egos.

But the constituency, where the arch-Blairite Ruth Kelly was the MP until she stood down last month, has in every recent general election, bar 1979, elected an MP of the party which went on to form the government. Bolton West is a bellwether constituency. Where it leads the nation follows.

Mrs Williams is methodically marching up the driveways, with a single supporter. It is not the first time Conservative canvassers have pounded these particular streets. They are working to a battle-plan that shows which houses have already been visited.

"The strategy is to identify potential supporters and ensure they turn out on polling day. It's a data collection process," she says.

All along the road to power – in Selby and Ainsty, Elmet and Rothwell, Leeds North West, Leeds North East, Pudsey, Halifax, Dewsbury, Keighley, Wakefield, Batley and Spen, Colne Valley and Calder Valley (majority 1,367) – there are Tories engaged in the same task. And more, up the M66 and M61, in Bury, Chorley, Hindburn, Rossendale, Pendle, South Ribble and points west. Over the past two weeks I have been travelling along the M62 to find out whether the Ashcroft strategy is working.

"When I got the seat three-and-a-half years ago we were way behind in the polls," Mrs Williams says. But then came the global financial meltdown, recession and the MPs' expenses scandal and the polls turned upside down. Pollsters and pundits all tipped Bolton West to turn Tory this time. Then came the Clegg surge, and now the Tory clawback in the wake of Gordon Brown's "bigoted woman" blunder in Rochdale. Detailed scrutiny of individual constituencies has become the best way to predict the national outcome.

"Hello, sorry to bother you, we're just canvassing for the Conservative Party," she begins. "Stand well back," she tells me, half-bossily, half as if confiding the secrets of canvassing. "Don't crowd people. They don't like you invading their space. And don't tell them you're the candidate until they have said how they are inclined to vote; they might say they'll vote for you out of niceness or embarrassment."

Her colleague shouts from a neighbouring house. "There's someone here who'd like to meet you Susan," he calls out, beckoning her over. "She's a Tory waiverer". She isn't exactly. "I loved Margaret Thatcher," says the woman. "But then Labour came in and gave it all away like a man with no arms." (She means the exact opposite of what you might suppose.) She doesn't mind immigrants, but only if they work hard. And she can't live off her pension so, at 68, she is looking for work having just been fired by a local estate agent.

"Thing is, I can't stand Cameron, he's like Tony Blair," the woman concludes. Susan Williams offers a few persuasive sentences and then admires the woman's bracelet. "It's nice, isn't it. But you've got to be careful of people drifting to Ukip," the woman says darkly, before offering what appears to be the clinching argument for voting for Mr Cameron – that his wife seems a lot nicer than Tony Blair's.

"She was probably always going to vote Conservative anyway," reflects Mrs Williams as we leave. The next voter is a man aerating his lawn with a garden fork. "I'm a don't know," he says gruffly and she moves swiftly on. "No point in antagonising him with chatter," she says.

She tries to get away just as quickly from a hardline Labour voter who tells her he'll be voting for Gordon Brown because he persuaded Barack Obama into a strategy which avoided a global depression and preventing unemployment from doubling and house repossessions from trebling.

"Ah, he saved the world," she summarises, trying to cut her losses. But before she can escape the man launches into a major caveat on Labour's insufficiently draconian immigration policy beginning "I'm not a racist or colour prejudiced but..."

"He'd never vote Conservative," she says, marking her paper, as we walk back down his garden path. "No point in wasting a lot of time on him."

Targeting is key to the Ashcroft strategy. He has come up with a sophisticated way of targeting not just swing wards but groups of voters within them who will decide where will be the turning point for the electoral tide in vital seats.

On she goes. We meet an old lady whose prime concern is that there is no seat in the local bus-shelter. Then there is a man who complains that the binmen missed out his street three weeks ago. "We'll bring it up at the council," Mrs Williams promises. But she is always anxious to move on. Canvassing is not an act of political persuasion, she repeats, but "a data collection process so we can get the vote out on the day".

Everyone is friendly. "The only time people slam the door is over MPs' expenses," she says. "You can't over-estimate how angry that's made people".

Susan Williams shows no flicker of sympathy for the men and women whose ranks she hopes she is about to join. "Many of them behaved outrageously," she says. She is an archetypal new Tory. There may be a picture of her in a big hat alongside Lady Thatcher at a dinner at the Mansion House in her office. But that is there just to reassure the faithful.

On the streets she wears blue jeans, a trendy grey cardigan, a black padded jacket and boots that jingle jauntily. Her voice is warm and unaccented though the pitch and rhythm of her speech occasionally reveal her to be a Geordie. Her mother's maiden name was Kelly and, like the eponymous Ruth, is a Catholic. The region has one of the highest densities of Catholics in the country.

She is just 43, and professes herself to be a progressive and, despite avowing a deep admiration for David Cameron, makes nuanced noises on Europe, talking up its benefits for British trade while bemoaning its downsides on fisheries, finances and sovereignty. "We should stay in," she concludes.

She is also one of the few new Tories to have run something big; at 36 she was the youngest ever leader of Trafford Borough Council, and an adviser to Conservative groups running other councils. Reclaiming the centre ground has been a major component in the Ashcroft strategy.

Across the Pennines in the marginal seat of Pudsey, between Bradford and Leeds, the candidate is a new Tory too. Stuart Andrew was once a member of the old-style Tories but, being gay, he left the party in protest at its anti-gay Section 28 law in the 1980s. Indeed so "new" is he that, a decade ago, he even stood for New Labour in local council elections, but he has been a Conservative councillor for the past eight years – and one of the few on Leeds City Council who openly takes his partner to official functions. Like Susan Williams, he too is liked and respected by his political opponents.

But in Pudsey it looks as though the Ashcroft strategy may be beginning to unravel. The Tories thought Pudsey was in the bag three months ago, but then two things happened. Jamie Hanley, a local solicitor, came in as the Labour candidate and began to work very hard. And then the Liberal Democrats got that bounce in the polls after the first leaders' televised debate, which has been sustained.

Stuart Andrew is sanguine about all that. "I never believed the massive Tory lead was real before," he says. "It was a mid-term thing." Nor was he ever able to go in for the targeting of individual wards or groups of voters which the Ashcroft strategy identified in other marginals. "The Conservative vote is spread right across the constituency so we can't target particular areas," he says.

Even so, the large amounts of cash which Conservative Central Office has poured into these key seats is visible in the massive billboard campaign which has swamped the constituency. "I've Never Voted Tory Before..." ads have recently been replaced with the party's Grinning Gordon posters. One has been plastered right next door to Labour's local campaign office. In addition, where other parties have campaign cars with posters stuck on them, the Tories have vehicles in Conservative livery with photos on candidates done in professional paint jobs. Their literature is glossy and centrally produced. They give out postage-paid response cards. They pay commercial firms to deliver their leaflets. One was recently pushed through doors with a flyer announcing "Are You Ready to Finally Get Rich in 2010?" It claimed local people could earn £2,000 a month from mailing out postcards.

Yet it is far from clear that all this is working. Though Stuart Andrew insists "there's not much of a Liberal surge on the ground" he admits that "what is striking is how many people say they have yet to make their mind up". Recently David Lammy, Labour's minister for Higher Education, was in Pudsey to campaign for Jamie Hanley. He made a short speech to supporters to say that Labour may lack cash but it had plenty of people on the group to door-knock. So much so (though Labour would not want publicly to admit this) they have run out of voters to canvas by phone – everyone with a phone has already been called. Mr Hanley was born and bred in the constituency and his children attended one of the Sure Start nurseries Labour set up.

If it has been hard to detect a Liberal Democrat surge that is probably because the vast majority of Liberal activists throughout the eight Leeds constituencies have migrated to Leeds North West to defend the seat of their only sitting MP Greg Mulholland who unexpectedly snatched victory from Labour in 2005. Defending his 1,800 majority against Labour seemed the only strategy in the days before the Clegg bounce was made manifest.

Sitting in his office just behind Asda in the Holt Park shopping centre Mr Mulholland, whose grey-white hair makes him look older than his 39 years, is not disposed to change that. Labour are fighting hard because they hope to take the three seats in the simultaneous local election vote which would allow them to regain control of the city council.

But, if his tactics are unchanged, his political language is not. "There was a poll recently that showed 60 per cent of people want a hung parliament," he says. "They see that the way to get change is to put no one in charge and force the parties to work together."

Mr Mulholland can feel safe. He has assiduously cultivated his constituency for the last five years and, again, is well-regarded by his political opponents. The middle ground of British politics is getting ever more crowded.

This is what makes it hard to gauge the successes of the Ashcroft strategy. Such local tactical shifts are making the election hard to read right across this key M62 belt. "The election is different in every place," says John Battle, the retiring Labour MP for Leeds West. "But what is clear is that there is a massive disconnect between the chatter from the Westminster media bubble and the mood on the ground. Indeed it often feels as if there is an undertow in opinion moving in the opposite direction. There are all kinds of local factors."

Across the M62 in Bury North the issue is that the outgoing Labour MP David Chaytor is facing criminal charges over his expenses claims. And in Morley and Outwood the wild card is the BNP which had such a strong vote in the last council elections that Labour was knocked into fourth position. A BNP councillor was elected and the Labour MEP lost his seat to a BNP candidate in the last Euro elections. This is Ed Balls's seat and some predict that there could be a Portillo moment when his result is announced, though on the ground that idea feels far-fetched.

Some in the Labour Party locally predict that the Liberal Democrat surge will evaporate even further as polling day nears. "Nick Clegg will turn out to be the Jedward of the contest," says Leeds councillor Neil Taggart, dryly. But others believe that a corner has been turned.

“A third party has never before led the polls in an election campaign,” says the Leeds Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland. “How that translates into seats, who knows, but we’re not going back to where we were. The genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Whatever the national opinion polls now say the message from the ground is that, for all parties, there is everything to play for. In these key individual constituencies just three days from the only poll that counts the battle is far from over.

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