Politicians argue but voters have made up their minds

Michael Streeter revisits The Independent's panel of Redditch constituents who voted Tory in the Eighties but who must switch to Blair if Labour is to win
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The lengthy election campaign may influence only a small minority of voters, with many people already decided on which party to support, according to The Independent's selected group of disaffected Conservative voters.

Yesterday as the Iron Lady's successor John Major finally announced the election date, most of the group claimed to have made up their minds; and crucially for new Labour's hopes a number are switching their support to Tony Blair.

Lionel Baird, 52, a paramedic, described himself as an "unhappy Conservative and an apprehensive Labourite".

He is grateful for much that he has been able to achieve in 18 years of Conservative rule - including owning his own home - but for the first time is switching his vote to Labour.

"I'm not 100 per cent sure and I feel apprehensive, but I think I will give new Labour a go. It's time for a change," he said. "I have discussed this with my wife and we both came to a similar conclusion.

"This government is looking a bit long in the tooth and John Major has not come up to expectations as a leader."

Adrian Blick, 30, a self-employed bricklayer, has made up his mind to support new Labour, claiming the Conservatives are no longer trustworthy. The key issues for him are the state of the National Health Service and the education system, and he believes Labour may do better than the Conservatives on the economy.

"I would not mind paying a bit extra tax as long as the NHS and schools were better," he said. "I'll definitely be voting Labour."

Another switcher is Roger Frost, a former British Gas travel manager who echoes many in the group by believing the campaign will have little impact.

"I think most people will not change their minds now. I'm 99.9 per cent sure I will vote Labour this time - it's simply time we had a change."

He will listen to the arguments, he says, without expecting to be persuaded, and believes the likely United States -style television debate will be too staged to influence people.

Mr Frost says that contrary to Tory hopes people do not believe the economy is benefiting them. "When I talk to people I know, they say the economy is not that different from before as far as I am concerned."

Those in the group likely to stay with the Conservatives seem equally to have made up their minds before the campaign kicks off. Susan Lovett, 38, a former sales consultant, says she will "almost definitely" vote Conservative again as she does not trust Labour, though she is looking forward to hearing the arguments and the television debate. "I'm not sure if it will influence me, but it will be quite funny. I think John Major will do well and that may influence anyone sitting on the fence to vote Conservative. At the moment most people do want a change."

David Bignall, 51, is a "disgruntled" Conservative, but says in the end he will vote Tory again, citing the economy.

"The economy is doing well, inflation is low and unemployment is coming down. I just do not trust the other side enough.

"When it comes to the crunch and I have to make the decision, I think my heart will still be with the Conservatives."

The views are echoed by Brian Nicholls, a butcher, who said: "The economy is stable - at the moment. I'm concerned about what might happen to inflation under Labour."

5 The Independent will be returning to the group during the election campaign to see if and how its members' views change.