Lib Dems build on success of pavement politics

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Indy Politics

"Tories... no... Liberals... no... Tories." Over a glass of Australian chardonnay at the Beluga tapas bar in Bramhall, south Manchester, Jackie Honey, a businesswoman, is grappling with the question of which political party holds her local parliamentary seat of Cheadle in Cheshire.

"Tories... no... Liberals... no... Tories." Over a glass of Australian chardonnay at the Beluga tapas bar in Bramhall, south Manchester, Jackie Honey, a businesswoman, is grappling with the question of which political party holds her local parliamentary seat of Cheadle in Cheshire.

Her hesitancy may have something to do with the fact that while the nation last went to the polls, on 7 June 2001, Ms Honey, a 50-year-old market research consultant, was busy getting married. But it is also a reflection of how little divides the two protagonists in Cheadle. Patsy Calton (Liberal Democrat) and Stephen Day (Conservative) have already battled it out twice over the last eight years and were divided by just 33 votes back in 2001 - the most slender margin in the entire election.

The winner on that occasion was the Liberal Democrat, Mrs Calton having whittled down Mr Day's majority from 15,000 in 1992 to 3,100 in 1997, before finally unseating him.

With Mr Day needing just a 0.1 per cent swing to regain the seat, every vote counts and every detail matters. The minor matter of who has most billboards takes on a new significance when you're working the tightest constituency in the country- and Mr Day seems to be edging it. A rough count by The Independenthad him 20-18 to the good in one sample square mile of Cheadle Hulme, a residential area that the Liberal Democrats must dominate if they are to retain the seat.

As if things weren't difficult enough, Mrs Calton is likely to miss the entire campaignas she is the midst of treatment for breast cancer and has been told by doctors to avoid any risk of infection. She is not looking for the sympathy vote; there is no mention of the illness on her campaign leaflets despite the recurrence of the disease, after eight years in remission, keeping her away from Westminster for much of this year. "It's infuriating - but the voters know what I've achieved," she said.

Mr Day, a Eurosceptic, likes to be remembered for his private members' Bill introducing car seatbelts for children and his work for those caught up in the Barlow Clowes collapse in the early 1990s. He is delighted to have met a constituent who, much like Jackie Honey, did not seem aware of the bad news about 2001. "He introduced me to his friend as his local MP," said Mr Day, drawing on a cigar. The Tory candidate has taken this as a positive sign. His literature celebrates his achievements as "the best MP we've ever had", more than his work in Cheadle during the years since he was ditched. The inference, reinforced by the Tories' decision to stick with their losing candidate, is that 2001 was an aberration.

But while Mr Day stumbles over boxes in the Conservative Association's pokey office, Mrs Calton's canvassing machine is purring along. Dozens of enthusiasts of advanced years are licking address labels in the spacious parish rooms requisitioned near campaign HQ.

There's a slightly Machiavellian strain to their campaign, too: leaflets "disguised" to appeal to Labour voters explain that a vote for party, which secured only 6,000 last time, is a vote lost.

Dirty tricks, says Martin Miller, the Labour candidate. The effort to convert the vital 6,000 Labour voters is a central aim for both Tories and Liberal Democrats.

Mrs Calton's has a reputation as a formidable local campaigner; her appeal is even recognised by avowed Tory voters such as Evelyn Wilson, 55, retired from her job at a Manchester stockbrokers and preparing to enter the fray with 30 others in a bridge drive at Bramhall Village Club. "I can't say I'm his biggest fan," she says of the Tory candidate, watching her playing partner Margaret McDermott pull a face at the mention of Mr Day. "Patsy [Calton] is much nicer, really.

"She really went to town on the post offices," continues Mrs Wilson, who is evidently in need of some Tory canvassing before Mrs Calton's majority goes up to 34. Her theme is the closure of post offices in Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme, more important to voters here than immigration, income tax or Iraq - none of which warrants a mention.

Back at the Belugas tapas bar, two young mothers-to-be are enthusing about Mrs Calton's work on the planned A555 south-east Manchester relief road, to link the M60 at Bredbury and the A6 at Hazel Grove. "You only have to look out there to see we need it," said Sarah Wallace, 30, an events and exhibitions organiser, glancing towards the traffic jam outside.

Mr Day would disagree, since the go-ahead for the road has not yet been granted and he considers himself to be its true champion ("We will build the bypass," thunders his literature). But when it comes to local issues, Mrs Calton seems to get the credit. She's earned it after winning back a $1m bonus for the local Stepping Hill Hospital which had been withdrawn by the Department of Health. But she is also likely to benefit from her party's tightening grip on the local political infrastructure in south Manchester, which was strengthened when control of Stockport council was established in 1999 and was subsequently cemented with surrounding parliamentary seats. As well as Cheadle, the Liberal Democrats hold neighbouring Hazel Grove and have Manchester Withington in their sights.

The takeover in south Manchester typifies the growing potency of the Liberal Democrats as a political force, says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. "They are very, very good at local, pavement politics and it has been an essential part of their long-term strategy for a number of years to build their way into local government, then get the chance to win the parliamentary seat," he said. "It has paid huge dividends and Cheadle is a classic example."

The party assumes the position left when one of the old political beasts has died out - the Labour Party in Cheadle and the Conservatives in cities such as Newcastle and Liverpool which have no councillors left and minimal political infrastructure around which to regroup.

Another element of this long Liberal Democrat tradition is to squeak into parliamentary seats, then consolidate the party's grip on them. Mark Oaten's two-vote majority in Winchester in 1997 makes Patsy Calton's seem like a landslide. But he strengthened it to a 21,000 vote majority in a by-election six months later (held after the initial result had been challenged). Adrian Sanders' 12-vote majority in Torbay in 1997 has strengthened to 6,700 votes. The same applies to Sir Menzies Campbell's Fife North East majority (3,300 in 1992; around 10,000 ever since).

Of course, the trend is not universal. Andrew Turner won back the Isle of Wight for the Tories in 2001 after Peter Brand pinched it for the Liberal Democrats in 1997. But it is no coincidence that the party has strengthened its hold in places where they dominate the local council - Torbay, Southwark and Winchester.

The Liberal Democrats have made no secret of their ambition to progress from municipal to parliamentary success in other areas of northern England where the Conservative infrastructure has been swept away.

Liverpool Wavertree, where they reduced the majority of the Labour MP Jane Kennedy from 19,000 in 1997 to 12,000 in 2001 is now on its hit list, more than five years after the party ousted Labour from the town hall.

The party's communications director, Lord Rennard, who was born and educated in the city, cherishes the idea of loosening Labour's near monopoly on its parliamentary seats.

The Liberal Democrats' municipal control has its drawbacks in Cheadle, where Hilary Stephenson, Lord Rennard's deputy, is masterminding the campaign.

The council is held responsible for allowing developers in Bramhall to compensate for a lack of land by knocking down some of the village's large Edwardian houses - properties which date back to when the new railway line from Manchester first attracted commuters - and erecting apartments in their place.

Nicola Fisher, who has one child and has another on the way, is one of those upset by the development. "We were told it was a conservation area when we moved in but so much for that," she said. Ms Fisher is one of the vital 6,000 Labour voters that both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are desperate to win over.

The Conservatives will be helped by their proposals for free local car parking, another cause for agitation among anxious Liberal Democrats. "We don't know yet if the Greens will field a candidate. That could split the vote," fretted one activist.

With just over a week to go until polling day, Cheadle could hardly be more finely balanced. Jackie Honey agrees "there's not much between them" but local Liberal Democrats can only hope that the outcome of 7 June 2001 will prove more enduring than it did for Ms Honey. Her marriage has not survived.

Cheadle: the country's most marginal seat

SITTING MP

Patsy Calton, Liberal Democrat (majority 33)

RESULTS

2001 result

Lib Dem 18,477 (42.4%)

Con 18,444 (42.3%)

Lab 6,086 (14%)

UKIP 599 (1.4%)

European Election 1999

Con 43.8%

Lab 16.9%

Lib Dem 21.8%

HISTORY

Cheadle came to national attention in 1966 when Michael Winstanley won the seat for the Liberals, overturning a Conservative majority of nearly 9,000. In 1970 Dr Winstanley lost the seat to Tom Normanton, the Conservative candidate. In 2001, Patsy Calton beat the sitting Tory MP Stephen Day at her third attempt. Her majority of 33 is now the smallest in the country.

SOCIAL PROFILE

One of the most middle-class and middle-aged constituencies in the country. Has the highest proportion of professional and managerial workers north of Watford, the highest proportion of owner-occupiers and the highest proportion of detached housing of any seat in the north of England. The electorate has several top-performing schools such as the independent Cheadle Hulme School. There is some light industry and office-based employment, but the majority commute to work in the financial and service sectors of Manchester. Although suffering large-scale redundancies, British Aerospace has a large development in Cheadle Heath. Manchester airport, two miles to the south-west is another major contributor to the economy.

ISSUES

Transport tops the agenda. One in three people in Cheadle cites road congestion as the area's biggest problem. The Stockport Chamber of Commerce also blames the area's congested road system for hampering economic growth. A second runway at Manchester airport makes the need for a bypass even more necessary.

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