In the winter darkness a chill wind is blowing over Hastings Pier. Wild waves, like shape-shifting monsters of the deep, lash at its iron struts. Not far away, in the warmth of Hastings Town Hall, the politicians are bickering over the future of this local icon of the great seaside era.
The pier had a long heyday. Designed by the Victorian seafront architect Eugenius Birch, it was given a glorious Art Deco face-lift in the 1930s before hosting musical legends of the Sixties and Seventies such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Genesis and Pink Floyd. But today Hastings Pier is falling into decrepitude: unsafe, closed to the public, and in the hands of a Panama-registered company that so neglects the landmark that it failed to turn up at a court case recently brought by the borough council.
Inside the Town Hall's vaulted council chamber, beneath the gothic arches and great rose windows ennobled with heraldic shields of lions rampant, the borough's 10 leading politicians are doing what politicians do best – disagreeing with one another.
"We are all agreed on the need to save the pier," says the leader of the ruling Conservative group, Councillor Peter Pragnell, "but we have to do it in a responsible way." The Labour and Lib Dem groups want a Compulsory Purchase Order to be slapped on the pier so that it can be handed over to a trust set up by local people. The Hastings Tories want to proceed more slowly. Being the party of free enterprise, they want to give a chance for someone from the private sector to come forward to take over a structure which needs at least £17.5m spent on it (and some say treble that).
Across Britain this year, the Conservative Party is hoping it will be the end-of-the-pier show for New Labour.
As the official launch of the general election campaign looms, the party which has been in opposition for the last 13 years is putting in place strategies to secure the 10 per cent voting swing pundits predict it will need to bring about a new political epoch for Britain – on a par with the handovers of power which took Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair into Downing Street.
One of the programmes put in place by the Conservatives' Belize- based treasurer, the billionaire Michael Ashcroft, is an assault on seaside marginals – of which the Hastings and Rye constituency is one of the most assailable. The Labour majority here is just 1,205 votes; the Tories require a swing of only 1.3 per cent.
Last year alone, Lord Ashcroft donated more than £1.8m – around £1 for every £10 the party received. Some £51,000 has found its way into the coffers of the Hastings party, compared to the local Labour party's fund of just £15,000.
Britain's seaside towns were once the genteel preserve of retired Conservatives, but many of them fell to Labour in 1997 and have remained Labour since then.
However a government study in 2008 showed that 26 of England's 37 big seaside towns now suffer levels of deprivation that are worse than the national average.
These 26 seaside towns have more elderly populations, because of the large numbers who retire to the seaside. Many have higher than average levels of benefit claimants and do badly in health statistics. They have poor transport links and low levels of employment, in economies still reliant on tourism and which have struggled for years due to the decline of the traditional seaside holiday.
The Tories are making seaside towns a particular target, crunching demographic data to identify key wards, and then relentlessly leafleting and canvassing them.
The need to cultivate the local vote has been brought home to the Conservatives who control Hastings Council. They had largely ignored the town's pier and the local people who set up a trust to buy and refurbish it. They believed that the regeneration of the town lay in the building of new offices to attract business.
But last October some 2,000 disgruntled residents marched with home-made placards along the promenade to the Town Hall. In December, the activists launched a Save the Pier campaign during a council by-election in a ward which is classic Tory heartland – all bungalows and PVC windows and where paperboys still deliver The Daily Express.
The campaign forced a pledge of action from all parties and, even so, the vote saw a 10.5 per cent swing to Labour – which gave the local Tories a nasty turn. The structure which the National Piers Society had deemed the most at risk in the UK has suddenly become the most rescueable, provided action is taken in time.
Now, after a meeting at the Twenties-style White Rock Hotel, opposite the shut-down pier, stalwarts of the campaign gather to pick over the outcome of the council meeting. "Things are moving in the right direction," says the trust's chair, Felix Robinson, an NHS contracts manager. But they have had a long way to go, adds its secretary, Chris Dodwell, a local builder.
The Hastings seafront had become quite run-down over the years. "It was a place associated with the cash economy through all the arcades – a place for money-laundering, where in the Sixties the Kray Brothers' mother Queenie was once involved," Dodwell says. Then in the Seventies lots of London boroughs sent their homeless to Hastings, as it was cheaper to house them here than in the capital. "One in three children here now grow up in a house where no one has ever worked," says another trustee, Angela Davis, who used to work in IT with Selfridges before moving to the seaside; she now works as a volunteer with low-income families.
"Over the past decade there has been a huge focus on regeneration," says Felix Robinson, with some £400m of investment coming into the town from the government's Regional Development Agency (RDA) and others.
"When Labour controlled the council, they had a Grot-Busters unit which leaned on the owners of badly-maintained seafront properties to smarten them up. But basically the authorities saw tourism as low-value and a thing of the past. They focused on building new colleges and office blocks."
But others here see things differently. "It became quite fashionable to move from London to the coast," says another trustee, Alison Cooper. "Now it's the really chic thing to do."
"We bought this run-down hotel five years ago and turned it round," adds Laurence Bell, owner of the White Rock – which has been transformed from a staid, old-fashioned hotel to a chi-chi temple to modernism.
"The town is on a gradual upward spiral," says his wife, Catherine Parr, "which can only improve when the Jerwood opens in 2012". She is referring to the gallery which is to be built on the edge of the pebbly beach to house the collection of modern British art owned by the Jerwood Foundation.
The trust the locals have set up to save their pier is "non-party political", says Felix Robinson. "But it has to be said that Labour has done a lot for Hastings over the past decade, whereas the Tories have been pretty useless locally."
Maybe a Cameron government would come down and kick the local Tories into shape?
"I'd like to think so," Robinson says, "But I'll believe it when I see it."
The Royal Dorset Yacht Club in Weymouth Harbour, 130 miles down the coast from Hastings, is not as grand as you might imagine. It once occupied the whole of the round-arched building on Custom House Quay which in the middle of the 19th century was a sailors' bethel (chapel). Today the ground floor of the building has been given over to a chandler's store. The first floor, where the drinking goes on, is still replete with photographs of the long-dead dukes and princes who gave the club its regal prefix.
The drinkers are all bluff, no-nonsense coves who refer to one another as "flag officers", "masters-in-sail", or in the case of the chap in charge, Gareth Peaston, a burly man with a full-set naval beard, as the club's "commodore".
Before I set out on this tour of seaside towns, political observers I consulted in Westminster suggested that key issues I should take soundings on were:
*Who would best handle the business of nursing the present fragile recovery: Brown, who wants to keep on spending for a while longer; or Cameron, whose instincts seem to be to cut sooner and harder?
*Both main parties are promising to protect the NHS and international aid, but Labour includes education in this ring-fencing of budgets. Would that make a difference to voters?
*The Conservatives want public-sector pay frozen from next year for workers earning more than £18,000. Will this harder tone play well for them?
*Labour will in April raise income tax from 40p to 50p in the pound for people earning over £150,000. The Tories are not pledged to repeal that, but they have said they will reverse Labour's plan to increase national insurance by 1 per cent from 2011, though they have given no indication as to how they'll make up the shortfall. Would the tax issue favour the Tories?
*Do people believe Government figures that crime is down, or the Tory insistence that it is soaring?
*Would the MPs' expenses scandal harm Labour more than Conservatives? Is Cameron seen as an out-of-touch toff, and is Brown regarded as commanding or floundering? Does the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, look too much like Cameron's little brother?
Yet from the moment I step into the bar at the Royal Dorset I discover that the carefully nuanced issues of the Westminster insiders are at some distance from what will influence voting decisions out here in the real world. In part, of course, much voting is tribal. Even in marginal constituencies, the outcome is decided by a minority of voters. Most of the Yacht Club members have always voted Tory and, despite the occasional yen for UKIP, will continue to do so. Moving from table to table brings home the extent to which politics is about semaphore as much as policy or philosophy.
The complaints flow as freely as the lunch-time wine: speed cameras, parking restrictions, bus lanes, the drink-driving rules for boats introduced by the Labour Party. Targets, the box-ticking brigade, health and safety. "Schools closed because kids might fall over in the playground," explodes Commodore Peaston.
"I took a pair of crutches back to the hospital and was told to throw them in a skip," says rear-commodore and retired hotelier, Graham Castell. "They said they couldn't take them back because of health and safety, cross-contamination. Haven't they heard of Dettol?"
Pretty universally, they agree with the founder of English utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, that human rights are "nonsense on stilts". And although there is barely a black face to be seen anywhere in Weymouth they inveigh against immigration.
"We're a Christian country even if we're not churchgoers," announces the owner of a little ketch, the Rhiannon, moored along the quay. "I'm no racist but these people want to impose their culture on us, infiltrating themselves into the civil service and then demanding that their languages are taught in our schools and forming themselves a Muslim parliament. What is all that about? If they want a Muslim Association, fine, but not a parliament. We have one parliament here and that's for everyone."
"And another thing," booms a retired car dealer from Salford named David Shrewsbury-Addy, with a bombast that borders on self- caricature, "what about ruddy non-elected quangos?" He and the other chap at his table complain about "all the local government jobs advertised in The Guardian". He looks like an unlikely Guardian-reader, but I let that pass.
"We saw one the other day for an 'AOB manager'," he roars. "What the hell is an AOB?"
"Another Overpaid Bastard!" quips his companion – with an alacrity that is too ready to be unrehearsed.
The current economic crisis is a subject for semiotics rather than serious scrutiny. Most of the lunch-time drinkers are retired, and living off interest rates and investment incomes that have plummeted. They are all eating into their capital.
"I blame Gordon Brown for the whole global financial crisis," fulminates Shrewsbury-Addy. "He created the problem with the banks by taking the regulations off lending and then lending to the Americans, who put all that money into bad housing loans. He destroyed British manufacturing and became too reliant on services in the City. There has been a complete lack of regulation of banks, just as with the privatised utilities, where the regulators are toothless."
But hang on, I point out, wasn't it Margaret Thatcher who started all of that? "Maybe," the former car dealer concedes, "but I just don't like that bastard Brown."
The human capacity to live with a raft of views that are often mutually self-contradictory is not the only complicating factor for those seeking to take the electoral pulse of the nation. A good many of us live in small towns where local issues can significantly influence outcomes, as the Hastings Pier by-election showed.
Leaving the yacht club, I head for Labour territory. I want to assess the chances of the sitting MP for Dorset South, Jim Knight. At the last election he defended Labour's smallest majority in England – just 153 votes – and emerged as one of the few Labour MPs in the country to increase his majority. Could he do it again?
The MP's campaign co-ordinator, Scott Langdon, is an earnest young man not long out of Bournemouth University MA course. He drives me around Weymouth, the biggest town in the constituency, which is 35th on the Conservative hit-list with a Labour majority now of 1,812 votes. A swing of only 1.85 per cent will take it Tory. "The key question is whether people will vote nationally, in which case we'll be in trouble, or locally, in which case we could have a good chance," says the young Labour activist.
Weymouth is where the seaside was invented – by George III, who came to the town to bathe in the sea in 1784, and whose statue stands by the seafront. It has been given a shot in the arm, or in the estuary rather, by the 2012 Olympics, all of whose sailing events will take place there.
A new sailing academy has been built on the Isle of Portland and the sitting MP has worked hard to ensure that the legacy of the Olympics stays on after the Games. He has secured a long-demanded relief road for the peninsula that is not only on time but is currently £2m under budget.
And such local issues matter. At a recent council by-election in Wyke, down towards Portland, a Tory majority of 500 was overturned because Labour fielded a local candidate and the Conservatives put up someone from the side of town. Jim Knight will clearly get some votes because of his high local standing.
Then the young Labour activist says something which I hear all over the country – in Weymouth, Hastings and Blackpool, as well as in Manchester and London – but which few like to put their name to: "Recession? What Recession? It's real enough for the unlucky people who have lost their jobs, but there aren't the house repossessions and companies closing down on the scale that there was in previous recessions. In many places people wouldn't know there was a recession if they hadn't read it in the papers or seen it on the telly." It was a proposition seconded throughout the town. Sales of boats had boomed all through 2009, the businessmen at the yacht club had conceded. Local hoteliers report they are full at weekends, even through January.
Time after time I discovered that votes will be cast – or cast aside – in the coming election on single issues which touch the self-interest, or fuel the indignation, of individuals in very different ways.
For Jim Peters, the secretary at the Wyke Regis Working Men's Club, the key determinant is Iraq. "Jim Knight used to be an ordinary bloke you could have a good debate with, but when he became a minister he swallowed the party line and voted for the war," says the stocky Celt who turns out to be well-versed Iraqi politics, from the place of the Marsh Arabs to the role of the Kurds. "I voted for him first time, because he was a breath of fresh air. But then last time I went Lib Dem because of Iraq. This time I'll go Conservative."
For one gnarled maritime veteran by the bar the issue is law and order. After 20 years in the Navy he had become a prison officer at Verne Prison on Portland. "Labour have really bollocksed the prison service, letting people out early who should be kept in."
On the sitting Labour MP's prospects, he believes that if Knight "was an independent he'd get in, but the vote will be on national issues. I voted Labour last time because the Conservative candidate was a total tosser. But the Tory this time seems alright. Even my wife, who is a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter, won't vote for them this time."
Down the road at the Wellworthy Sports & Social Club the defining issue for Sheila Dyer, a woman in her early 60s, is Europe. "I'm with the Conservatives on law and order and immigration. But they are very anti-Europe and I'm very pro. Europe has brought us peace after centuries of war, and we'd have come out of recession earlier, like France and Germany, if we'd been in the euro."
Across town, on the bleak Littlemore council estate, the focus of the woman outside the parade of shops is the two-year-old she is wheeling in his buggy. "They need to clean the place up and get rid of all the drunks, smackheads and paedophiles. I'll vote for anyone who brings in Sarah's Law," she says – despite the fact that crime is down in Littlemore year on year.
So who will she vote for? "I probably won't bother." At the last election there was no park on the estate, but the provision of one elsewhere in Littlemore has made no impact on her. "There's no park this side of the estate," she says. "It's a long way to walk." Meanwhile up at Bovington army camp, to the north of the Dorset South constituency, there is a similar contempt for politicians among the wives of soldiers from the Royal Tank Regiment, taking their small children for burger and chips in a local pub. What fires them are not the big-picture issues about Afghanistan or Iraq – or even whether the men fighting there have the right equipment – so much as the way the political class treats soldiers and their families.
"No government looks after soldiers' families properly – which is why I won't vote for any of them," says one woman. She has been 22 years an army wife but, like the others, asked not to be named for fear her comments might blow back on her husband. "I'd like to see Gordon Brown come down here and look at the state of our houses."
"Our husbands are provided with an MOD [Ministry of Defence] dentist but even though he's on the base, wives and kids are not allowed to use him. It's ludicrous," says another wife. "The Tories introduced that, forcing us to pay for prescriptions, which used to be free, and dentists, who you can never find. But Labour didn't reverse that. I won't vote for any of them. They are all full of false promises. Politics is a crock of shit."
The younger wives are less embittered, but here too there is little belief that voting is anything other than a waste of time.
"In five years married to a soldier I've lived in four houses," one says. "We move all the time, so it's impossible for me to go to university and virtually impossible to get a job, apart from a bit of bar work. I won't vote."
"I might," says another, "if there was a party that promised to help us find a house when my husband leaves the army in 18 months. I'd like to stay round here, where the kids are settled in school and I have a little job in a shop. But the cheapest house here costs £200,000, which is way beyond us." Her friend nods in agreement: "I probably won't bother [to vote] because we hope to emigrate to Australia or Canada when my husband leaves the army."
A pair of elderly hikers sitting in the corner of the bar, with their trousers tucked in their socks, similarly announce that it will be a single issue that will determine where they put their cross on the ballot box.
"My family were always Conservative," Anne Philips says discursively, "but I don't think Labour has done too badly; we've got free bus passes. I don't like the Conservatives' line on marriage, but on immigration, we're a small country and we should let fewer people in. It's not an issue round here, but when I go up north to see my family you see women in burkas, which is intimidating..."
"But what will sway us," interrupts her husband, "is that the Conservatives want to reverse the law on fox-hunting. We live in the country and we have the hunt all round us, breaking the law, and hunting foxes. They are all Tories and are so arrogant, driving their four-by-fours over our land without asking permission. That totally rules them out as far as we are concerned."
It will be a master party tactician who can pick a path through such a thicket of thorny single-issues.
But there is something else, as I discovered in Hastings. Labour's strategy there – as in 30 or so other constituencies where the Green Party won more than 2 per cent of the vote at the last election – will be, the Conservatives believe, to try to stop Green voters from switching to the Tories. Jeremy Birch, the leader of the Labour Party on Hastings Council gives some succour to the idea, though he denies it is merely a vote-grabbing strategy.
"Labour's approach in both the constituency and the council is based on green issues, because we think that climate change is the biggest single issue facing the planet," he says. "It's not about winning votes from local Tories, who have in the past been little short of climate- change deniers, but about doing what we think is right." In the Hastings area, Labour councillors are pushing for planning rules that would require all new developments of 10 properties or more to be fitted with green power-generation systems. But this über-greenness does not extend to local Labourites abandoning their support for a new link road from Hastings to Bexhill, which is widely perceived locally as a vote-winner.
They may be doing enough. "There's a lot of interest in green issues but it's split among different single-issue groups. There's not a cohesive body of Green support," says Sally Phillips of the Hastings Green Party, which has been struggling even to find a candidate for the forthcoming election. "But despite wanting to build a new road across a swathe of beautiful countryside, it has to be admitted that Labour has slightly greener credentials locally than the Tories." Whether that will be enough to counter the anticipated national swing to the Conservatives is far from clear.
The news will probably shock all right-thinking educated liberals, but in talking to dozens of people on my progress through some of Britain's seaside marginals I met only three individuals for whom global warming was a serious issue. Two of them were professional politicians. The third was a former geography teacher, Nigel Lacey, in whose comfortable, eco-friendly guest house I stayed in Weymouth.
Not a single person I met – from the members of the Royal Dorset Yacht Club to the Working Men's Club and beyond – expressed any view other than that global warming was a huge scam dreamt up by politicians as a tax-raising con-trick.
"I'm fed up with hearing about it," Commodore Peaston had said at the Royal Dorset. "David Cameron will lose votes if he keeps banging on about that, along with all that Harriet Harman stuff about women-only shortlists. CO2 levels now are the same as they were 50 or 60 years ago. Look at all that fuss about the ozone layer, and now the hole in the ozone has gone. There's an enormous global warming industry out there now; it's the quickest short cut to a research grant. It's crippling industry." The world has been warming for 20,000 years, Master-in-Sail Compton contributed. "Here on the Jurassic Coast we have all the evidence. I don't think global warming is anything to do with us." Down at the Working Men's Club, everyone took the same view. "Green issues are a load of rot," said Geoff Dyer. "The world changes over centuries, look at the ice age and all that. We're just keeping better records now. Global warming is the biggest con going; it's just an excuse for more taxes."
When I recount all this at Lacey's Guest House, the owner is flabbergasted. Nigel Lacey began life as a banker in the City before switching to use his physical geography degree as a teacher. He worked in state secondary schools for more than two decades, before switching again to running his B&B which he has just spent £45,000 magnificently greening. "Why do these people think that a metre-high wall has just been built round Weymouth Harbour?" he begins, before launching into an evaluation of which the science on anthropogenic global warming is compelling.
The short-sighted self-interest of his fellow townsfolk reminds him why he quit teaching. "I just couldn't stand the change in the kids – the 'everyone-out-for- themselves' materialism that came in with Thatcher's children."
Nor, however, does education look likely to be the decisive local issue some had expected. Back in Hastings, the area has been riven in recent months over plans to close down three failing secondary schools and replace them with two brand new academies. The controversy was heightened when a new head, Peter Midwinter, arrived at one of the schools, Filsham Valley, and turned it round. "A lot of people in the town are against the academies idea," says David Hancox, who has been a secondary school teacher in the town for 30 years and was also a governor at a couple of schools. "And opposition has grown as Filsham has improved considerably under an inspirational head. But though it is a controversial issue, it is difficult to see how it could be a decisive factor in the election, as both main parties are in favour of the academies."
Hancox is himself a long-time Liberal Democrat. So where does the looming poll leave him, since his party registered only 15 per cent of the vote in Hastings at the last general election?
"The Labour candidate is a good local man," he says, "whereas the Tory, Amber Rudd, has been parachuted in from outside. More than that, she is the former wife of AA Gill, which will be enough for many Lib Dem voters like me to vote Labour. I think lots of people will be voting tactically."
And not just in Hastings. Nigel Lacey was voting tactically in Dorset South, where the phenomenon was a big factor in the last two elections, after the leftist musician and local resident Billy Bragg organised an anti-Tory vote-swap in constituencies across the county. Large numbers of people can be expected to vote tactically in all the seaside marginals that the Conservatives are targeting.
The real lesson Hastings that teaches is a very different one.
On the sixth floor of a barely furnished office block overlooking the seafront, a dozen young people are gathered in a loose semi-circle of desks. They are excitedly calling out words and giggling. In front of them a stocky young man in his late 20s is scribbling down the words they shout. He is Anthony Hilder, the co-ordinator of a project called Creating Futures.
Under the aegis of the Prince's Trust, the project is running a 12-week, full-time course for a group of 16- to 25-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training – "Neets" as the acronym ineptly describes individuals whose lives are far from that.
The group has just come back from a week-long stay in Devon, a bonding exercise which takes place at the end of the course's first fortnight. There are paroxysms of laughter about burned sausages, sex, early-morning roosters, sex, rock-climbing, sex, drugs, sex and a dildo. At the end of it Hilder sets them a game in which they have to role-play making and answering phone calls, ahead of the real thing the following week when they will call local firms to try to set up work experience for themselves.
Hastings is the youth unemployment capital for the south of England. In the town, one in 10 young people are out of work – a figure you have to travel north of Birmingham to match. Most of the young people in this room are old enough to vote. Most of them will not do so.
Carley Hale is bright and personable. She is emerging as the natural leader of the group. At 23, despite her purple hair, she has always managed to be in work – in a card shop, in a mortgage-brokers, as a bingo caller – but has never had a job she found fulfilling. She says the the Prince's Trust course is "amazing".
"I know I ought to vote, but I never have," she says. What turns her off politics is how relentlessly negative it is. "All they ever seem to talk about is how wrong the other parties are. I shut off." There are issues aplenty which concern her – like how to balance not being racist with ensuring that people who were born in Hastings do not get pushed to the back of the housing queue by arrivals from abroad. Even at her age, she is concerned about declining standards of discipline in schools. "It was far worse when I left school than when I started."
Louis Campbell, 20, is another sharp and likeable youngster who announces that the course is "wicked". "I know I ought to vote," he says. "I have watched the BBC Parliament channel a few times to try to get to grips with it, but it all seems foreign to me. And the stuff on the main news isn't much different from The X Factor."
"I just have other things to worry about," says Abby White, 22. "Gordon Brown is better than Tony Blair, that's all I can say. As for David Cameron, I think nothing."
More alarming is a 22-year-old woman whose brother is standing as a Labour candidate elsewhere. "We're a Labour family," she says. "I know everything is affected by politics, from the biggest to the smallest thing, but I can't engage." She lost her job with the ambulance service and has been unemployed for the past nine months, after being convicted of assaulting the police who repeatedly stopped her because she was a cannabis user. "I have a big trust issue," she says.
Political pundits usually categorise such responses as apathy. But as you talk to these young people you realise that something more than lack of interest or indifference is in play. There is a profound disengagement and even alienation between our political class and an entire generation which is most disturbing. And it feels like the politicians' problem rather than that of the generation who are lost to them.
I travel north to that most quintessential of British seaside towns, Blackpool. Here the Conservatives have, on paper, a slightly harder task. In Blackpool North, where Labour has a majority of 3,540, they need a 4.65 per cent swing to take the seat. In Blackpool South, where the Labour incumbent has a 5,882 majority, they require a swing of 8.85 per cent – and without a shift of that magnitude David Cameron will find no automatic entry to 10 Downing Street.
But Blackpool fits the classic Tory template of higher-than-average social deprivation coupled with high crime, poor health and education indicators, and a struggling economy still reliant on a dying tourist trade. The town was three years ago famously denied the licence for the nation's first Las Vegas-style super-casino. It had been slated to bring hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, and thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Blackpool has also just lost all the big party political conferences to more modern conference venues.
There is something big, brassy and blowsy about Blackpool – but there is undoubtedly a market for it. "We increased visitors [to the town] by two million last year," says Helen Mansell, president of Stay Blackpool (as the town's former Hotel and Guest House Association now calls itself). We are sitting in the little bar of the Bamford House Hotel, her cosy 13-bedroom hotel five minutes walk from the seafront. "Some of that was 'staycation' – people holidaying at home rather than going abroad because of the recession. But some of it reflects the big improvements there have been in Blackpool over the past few years."
Since the resort failed to get the super- casino the Regional Development Agency for the North-west has been pumping other government funds into the town by way of compensation. A massive refurbishment of the promenade is half-finished, and parts of the town centre, around St John's Square and Birley Street, have been paved with patterned cobbles and illuminated by rather alarming gantries, which look like pods from a Seventies sci-fi film. The fact that the buildings along Birley Street are an unchanged series of travel agents and building societies, rather than groovy bars and eateries, slightly detracts from the impact. But the effect is nonetheless rather arresting. "'Sgreat this!" a solitary Scottish drunk shouts out to me, gesticulating wildly at the twirling kaleidoscope of lights as I pass beneath them. (But then it is a Monday night in January.)
"There is a lot left to do," admits Helen Mansell. Not least – and this is a delicate matter for the president of the association which represents 400 of Blackpool's hoteliers – that "we probably have between 500 to 1,000 too many beds in the town, and some of them are not of a sufficiently high standard".
A programme is under way to improve and shut down those which fail to make the grade, she says. "You can get a bed for as little as £15 a night in Blackpool, but you probably wouldn't want to stay in it."
The decision by the main political parties not to hold their conferences in Blackpool was "devastating", she says. But "we're not going to give up without a fight – the task is to upgrade to the kind of single-venue conference facilities that the modern world requires." The next phase of the regeneration, includes a number of four- and five-star hotels. So which political party will most assist with that? David Cameron recently told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in London that "most of the RDAs will be going", and their funds switched to local councils and "local enterprise partnerships" – whatever that means.
How people like Helen Mansell vote will almost entirely depend on scrutinising exactly what that does mean: "The RDA has been great for the town. I would want to be sure that a change of government wouldn't scuttle any of that. I lean towards Labour on that. They are, after all, the party for the North, where the Tories are essentially the party for the South."
The local Conservative website gives few clues as to the likely the fate of such regional funding, confining itself to a raft of scare stories – many of which seem very out-of-date – about Labour considering the introduction of a hotel-bed tax, placing snooping microchips in bins, and axing jobs and beds at the Blackpool Victoria Hospital. Soaring crime figures also feature prominently.
According to figures released by the party nationally, violent crime has increased since 1999 by an average of 78 per cent in many of the largest seaside towns – and it has doubled in Blackpool. This is not quite how the police in the town see it. Their stats show that crime was down 3.7 per cent overall, with a 1.9 per cent drop in violence against the person, a 10 per cent drop in robbery and a 10.8 per cent fall in incidents of criminal damage.
So how is all this playing politically? To find out I venture out to Grange Park. It is one of the largest council estates in Lancashire and has a reputation for crime, drugs and serious social disorder. I team up with the local postmaster, Peter Collins, who is also a Conservative councillor, and ask him to show me the reality on the ground.
He takes me for lunch at the estate's new City Learning Centre. The bold modern building houses a library, IT centre, TV studio and a small conference centre. "Over the years, the estate attracted dysfunctional families," he says. He has run the post office there for more than two decades. "The bright lights of the seaside seem to attract people who are down on their luck. We had a lot of problems, over the years."
From behind his post office counter, Collins became an informal adviser to the community. In 2008 he decided to stand for the council to formalise the role. Since then he has been at the heart of a series of initiatives put in place under the Labour Government's urban renewal programme. The estate got a brand-new primary school to replace the much-vandalised old one. On the site of the old school an office was opened bringing together a range of agencies – housing, social work, drug-abuse services and more – under one roof.
"A key factor has been that the police have made the place their base, rather than opening a police station," he says. "We have a sergeant, two constables and four community support officers. They engage with youngsters in sports grounds, youth clubs and at schools before they get into trouble. Crime has diminished rapidly, in all categories: burglary, drug-related issues, vandalism. They are all nowhere near as bad as they were five or 10 years ago. There hasn't been a single incident of vandalism at the new school that has required an insurance claim."
We talk as we tour the estate. He takes me to a project run by the local Methodist church, with card games for the elderly, and a club for young people. He shows me how they fenced off Argosy Court to stop youngsters tearing past the bedroom windows of old folks on bikes and skateboards, and filled the newly created central courtyard with all-weather keep-fit equipment. "The youngsters were dead envious," he smiles. "So we told them: 'You can come in and use it, provided you're invited by an elderly person who you've helped use it first'. The young and the old are communicating again. The old people are thrilled. They like being listened to."
Everyone we pass on foot greets him warmly. Peter Collins is a remarkably unpartisan figure, considering that many of the initiatives have been put in place under New Labour's Sustainable Communities Plan. He smiles when I say so. "I'm for the community," he says simply. "Whatever works, I'm behind. The election here will be a close-run thing."
I go on to Blackpool Victoria Hospital, where I meet another extraordinary man who runs counter to perceived stereotypes. Steve Holmes is the Unison branch secretary and union convenor for the hospital's nurses and ancillary staff. He served his Labour movement apprenticeship in the tough politics of Glasgow and retains the accent of those parts.
"Four years ago we had a potentially devastating overspend here," he says over a latte in the Costa Coffee franchise in the hospital foyer, "but we had a remarkable chief executive who clawed back £21m and reconfigured the jobs of 500 nurses, with absolutely minimal disruption to our members. Now we're faced with finding another £55m savings over three years. But we're optimistic that it can be done in a way that benefits everyone, because although that chief exec has left, the HR director here is a very smart, a guy whose heart is in the right place."
This is not the kind of talk you expect from a union man who was once a Militant Tendency sympathiser. But times have changed and Steve Holmes has changed with them. He continues, in his warm Scottish burr, talking about a pilot project to make this a paper-lite hospital. It will also be a workplace committed to no compulsory redundancies, and will be exploring a clearing-house system to swap staff with other local services, such as the council or the fire service.
What does all that mean for the coming election? "For me, that boils down to which party will be the best of a bad lot. The Tory agenda will be privatisation, extensions of PFI [Private Finance Initiative], making more use of charities and the private sector."
That sounds pretty much like the New Labour agenda too. "Yes, but Labour's reforms were tempered by pressure from unions, royal colleges, the British Medical Association, MPs with union links and backbench rebels. We were able to influence the outcome in a way that we couldn't with a Tory government."
Holmes's fear is that there isn't the political consciousness among his 2,000 members here at the hospital in Blackpool to understand that. "Despite the fact that Labour has doubled spending on the NHS, a lot of people are now saying: it won't make any difference who gets in, we're all doomed. There's a deep-rooted Armageddon scenario," he says.
The MPs' expenses scandal has provided an intellectual justification for apathy. "A large number of people are saying they are not going to vote. I'd be stunned if there isn't a really low turnout, which will favour the Tories and harm Labour," Holmes adds. What alarms him most is the number of people saying, amid all the fairly shallow "time for a change" sentiment, that they might vote for the British National Party. He fears that the BNP is rapidly becoming for Labour what UKIP is for the Tories – the refuge for the radical, knee-jerk protest vote.
"I have heard quite reasonable people saying things like: 'I'm fed up with politics, so I'm going to vote BNP' – as if that isn't politics, and of the worst kind. Or 'the BNP can't do any worse than the other lot'."
The development frightens him. "A thought-process has changed. Since the Thatcher years, the old community ethos has died away, to be replaced by a more individualistic one," he reflects. "The vicarious virtue – the idea of asking 'What's best for Britain?' rather than 'What's best for me?' – has vanished. It's now quite respectable not to give a bugger about anything other than your own self-interest."
For groups whose interests are routinely neglected by the rest of society, that impulse may be understandable. I leave the hospital and head across town for afternoon tea with a group of elderly people, all of them volunteers with Age Concern or its Senior Voice Forum.
The De Vere Hotel offers neat little egg and cheese sandwiches, and scones, jam, thick clotted cream and fresh strawberries. "This is very nice," says John McCarten, 68, a former tram driver who chairs the senior citizens' forum. The half-dozen pensioners speak with passion about subjects about which the rest of us know little – how the cobblestones in the new pedestrianised areas are bad for people with arthritis in their feet, how inaccessible the main post office is, now that it has been moved to the basement of WH Smith, how home-care allowances and pension credits need rationalising. "The way they work, it makes you feel penalised for having lived a life that was thrifty," says Ann Leather, 71, who used to run a sheltered housing project in Egham.
"People should be allowed to work to any age they want," says Gwyneth Mugonyi, 75, a teacher from Wales who married a Ugandan and turned hotelier.
"You shouldn't have to sell your house when you go into care," says John McCarten. "You should be able to pass it on to your children."
But when it comes to asking how all this will affect the way they vote, the group falls back on voting patterns that they established decades ago. There are clearly no grey-lobby issues which transcend the political habits of a lifetime. But there is also about them an ineluctable weariness. It is as though they have grown used to not being listened to, even if they are determined to continue to speak up.
The question that lingers with me is how habits of political participation can be formed in those sectors of the population which the political process routinely fails to access. I make my way to the Blackpool Barnado's Project, set up to improve the parenting and other skills of the town's young mothers.
Until quite recently, Blackpool had the highest number of teenage mothers in Britain; many are themselves daughters of teenage mothers. Barnado's runs courses on subjects as basic as how to play with your children and how to cook.
Ask what they expect from politicians, and the answer is shockingly limited. "Why can't they put a different kind of bus on the No 6 route?" says Rachel Calvert, 19, who has a two-year-old son, McKenzie, and a six-month-old daughter, Elliemay. "You can only get one non-folding pram on the No 6, unlike the other routes."
"It only comes every 20 minutes, so if there's a pram on already you have to wait for the next one," says Natasha Wright-Pope, 17, bouncing on her knee her three-month-old son, Lucas, in a 'Tigger-ific' suit.
They chat in a desultory way with two other mums – one of whom is 17 and already has a three-year-old and a new baby – about the courses they have heard Barnado's can offer. The Barnado's social worker, Sarah Rowbotham, listens, and offers the odd suggestion. But there are no politicians here to connect in that way.
They are old enough to be mothers but only two of them are old enough to vote. Will they? And who for? "Dunno," says Rachel, the most articulate of the quartet. "I suppose when the time comes I'll find out about it on the news."
Where does she get her news, I ask, from the telly, radio, internet or papers?
"All of those. But I don't see the news much because I tend to record the telly, EastEnders and Coronation Street," and then watch it when the kids are in bed."
So what news has she learned of recently? Jade Goody died, she replied. Swine flu, said one of her friends. That paedo nurse in Portsmouth, said a third. Anything more recent? What about the earthquake in Haiti? "I haven't heard about that," Rachel says. Nor had any of the others.
The 2010 election, Professor Anthony King of Essex University has adjudged, will be "the most unpredictable since 1974". He may well be more right than he realises.
But there are too many people that no election campaign will ever reach. If politicians are concerned about the health of democracy – rather than merely the question of winning – they would do well to reflect on why that is so. And what they're going to do about it.Reuse content