From Dover to Dorset, Tory MPs in South Coast seats are reporting growing disenchantment, particularly among the pensioners who make up more than 34 per cent of the voters in the by-election.
Some South Coast resorts, such as Hastings, are seeking to redraw the economic map of Britain by seeking assisted area status, normally given to help towns in the north of England recover from mass unemployment. A new map has been submitted to the European Community by Department of Trade and Industry ministers. The signs are that it will be rejected.
Jacqui Lait, the Tory MP for Hastings, who has been battling hard for assisted area status, said: 'Hastings has pockets of deprivation that are as bad as in the inner cities. We have a high proportion of single mums. We have high levels of child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.'
But the underlying problem for the Tories in the South Coast resorts is the retirement factor. While the Government is being urged by business leaders and many Tory MPs to cut interest rates to revive the economy, pensioners who have retired to the South Coast have seen a slump in the income on their savings. The plight of the elderly has been raised by Sir Terence Higgins, Tory MP for Worthing, and David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover.
Mr Shaw is calling on Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to create a 'granny bond' providing interest at at least 8 per cent for pensioners in his Autumn Budget.
He estimates that pensioners in his area who had their life savings of pounds 20,000 invested in a building society have seen their weekly income from the interest fall from pounds 60 to pounds 14. For pensioners relying on the interest to top up their pensions, it has changed their lives, and it has happened right across the South Coast.
The southern swathe of Tory blue is almost certain to be interrupted by a blob of yellow on 29 July, when the Liberal Democrats are expected to inflict a by-election defeat on the Tories in Christchurch.
The Government may shrug it off - Eastbourne was lost in an equally sensational by-election, only to turn back to the Tories at the last election. But the message from Christchurch is one being repeated across the South Coast. The warnings by the Government that it will have to control the rise in the cost of pensions are making a bad position worse for Tory MPs desperately trying to keep the support of their pensioners. The threat to raise the pension age of women to 65 is a further cause of depression.
Levels of unemployment are not high compared to northern seats such as Labour-held Barnsley East, but a dramatic rise since 1988 explains the downturn in the South Coast 'feel good factor'.
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