The mood on the street: 'I am astonished they think they'll get away with it'
Twelve years ago, in the "Battle of Knutsford", a furious Neil and Christine Hamilton clashed with their opponent Martin Bell, providing one of the defining moments in the rout of the sleaze-ravaged Tory Government. Today, after seven days in which the reputations of political representatives in Westminster hit a new low, the people of this affluent Cheshire commuter village were again considering their electoral options.
Here, in the leafy redoubt of Manchester's professional and footballing classes, the sprawling North-west constituency which is home to five million voters, the fallout from the expenses revelations were playing poorly for all the main parties vying for their share of eight seats at next month's European elections.
Derek Purdy, 61, a Rolls-Royce salesman from nearby Wilmslow, said he was revolted by the unfolding scandal not least because urgent action was needed to overhaul the beleaguered financial system. "I am absolutely horrified about MPs' expenses," he said. "I think it is totally disgusting. When Hazel Blears said she was returning £13,000, she said it was because she wanted to show her constituents that everything was above board. But that made it worse. She can't make it better like that. What worries me more is that they are all as bad as each other."
Elaine Norbury, 42, a housewife with three children, said she had been impressed by David Cameron's handling of the crisis. "Of all the politicians at the moment, he has made the best of a bad job. But what can you say after everything that has been in the newspapers? I am astonished that people in public life think they can get away with things like that."
Thirty minutes' drive into Manchester leads to Miles Platting, a traditionally rock-solid Labour territory in a region in which the party holds 60 Westminster seats. The Ace of Diamonds pub on the Oldham Road sticks out as a rare beacon of activity among the derelict surroundings although it is soon to be bulldozed in a £150m public-private redevelopment project.
Landlord Derek Adams, 51, who has stood as a local British National Party councillor, said: "My customers are absolutely disgusted but that is not the only thing they are disgusted with. In this area, services have been neglected, there are no police on the beat and migrants are being pushed to the front of the housing queue."
Sitting next to Mr Adams, is Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, planning his strategy to become an MEP for the region. For him the expenses scandal is proving to be gold-dust. Mr Griffin is promising to give 10 per cent of his MEP's salary to "good causes" if he wins the 8.4 per cent necessary to propel him to a seat under the electoral system. The further people get away from "failing London", he said, the less connected they are with the political establishment.
Eight miles further on, in Bury's celebrated covered market, bookseller Jim Eagle, 72, feared Mr Griffin's "Punish the Pigs" mantra could persuade deeply disillusioned voters. "Frankly, I think it is going to play into the hands of the smaller parties and my real worry is that means the BNP," he said. The other big concern was apathy, he added. The European elections of 2004 attracted some 40 per cent of voters largely due to a compulsory postal ballot. Less than half that bothered in 1999 and another low turnout looks likely.
DJ Christopher Barnes, 40 and his partner Fiona Webb, 26, a student teacher, took a surprisingly benevolent approach to the subject of MPs' and their expenses as they paused from shopping with their two-year-old son, Tyler, by Bury town hall. "Every person who has their own business and does their own tax returns tries to get away with as much as they can," said Mr Barnes whose business has declined sharply because of the smoking ban and the recession. "MPs are just doing what every business person does but they don't look so bad," he added. "Years ago you knew what the Labour Party stood for: for the working class and the unions or that the Conservatives stood for entrepreneurs. Now you may as well just close your eyes and take a wild guess on the ballot paper."
Northwards into the Pennines, the people of Burnley have been venting their fury this week over the financial arrangements of their sitting Labour MP Kitty Usher, a junior Government minister who spent £40,000 of taxpayers' money renovating her second home in Brixton, south London.
Irene Porter, 77, a former Labour supporter, is planning to vote Green for the first time in June. "I feel so angry and let down," she said. "I knew right from the beginning that she was using Burnley as a stepping-stone. It was a safe seat and she was a complete stranger and she got in. We are becoming a nation of not very nice people and it is time to give some thought about what we are doing to this planet."
In Justice Secretary Jack Straw's neighbouring seat of Blackburn, chef Asif Iqbal, 31, is more worried about being able to buy a house for his young family, and the fall-out from the war on terror on relatives in Pakistan than MPs' expense accounts. "Jack Straw has done quite a bit for Blackburn but they should learn to keep their noses out of other people's problems," he said. "We are a peaceful nation, so why do we keep going to war?"
Up in the Lake District National Park near Whitehaven, Alistair Mackintosh, 50, has been farming for nearly 30 years. He feels saddened at the ongoing meltdown in trust. "There are a lot of politicians out there with very high integrity who are doing some good work," he said. "I appreciate that some have been caught with their snouts in the trough but I wouldn't want to tar them all with the same brush. Those I have met have all been genuine men and women."
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