"I may lose this election," admits Jacqui Smith, clasping her coffee mug in both hands. "Lots of friends and family advised me not to fight this seat. But I'm not someone who walks away. If I lose, I lose, and it may be to do with expenses or the national scene. But at least I know I've given people the opportunity to have their say about me and given myself the opportunity to put right any mistakes I may have made."
Behind her, a noisy folding machine spits out a fresh batch of flyers for volunteers to stack on the few remaining surfaces in Labour's election headquarters in Redditch – two sparsely furnished rooms in an industrial estate behind the town's railway station. An air of quiet determination pervades the room. That and lots of dust. Even without the expenses furore – her husband famously charged taxpayers for two blue movies, while Ms Smith claimed her sister's spare bedroom was her main residence – the electoral hill facing the former home secretary was always going to be steep.
Redditch is a classic suburban marginal: a predominantly working-class town surrounded by Tory-leaning rural Worcestershire. Ms Smith has won the last three elections, but every time it was by a paper-thin lead. Her current majority is 2,128, making Redditch Labour's 28th most vulnerable seat. All the Tories need is a 2.5 per cent swing to take it. And to make life harder still, boundary changes have added a patch of countryside known as Hanbury and the Lenches, which will bring some 2,000 predominantly Conservative voters to Redditch.
Labour tried to stop the boundary changes – Smith even penned a personal letter to the Boundary Commission. Now she will spend much of the next few weeks wooing voters there.
"I go out every month to do my surgery around the villages," she says. "It's not a fundamental change in the nature of the constituency but, yes, all the analysis says it will nominally reduce my majority. I had a tough marginal seat before. That makes it tougher."
Now that she's away from the Cabinet, and no longer surrounded by a phalanx of advisers and press officers, Ms Smith is refreshingly accessible. Several newspapers have reported that the former home secretary is elusive, even avoiding them. It took little more than a couple of emails, though, to sit down with her.
Expenses feature prominently as an albatross round Jacqui Smith's neck. After all the lurid headlines and front pages, in the end she was asked to pay back £1,470 – less than half the average £3,316 that 391 of her fellow MPs were told to return. But her Cabinet profile, the fact that she was the first MP to be outed, and the unusual nature of her claim meant that she has inevitably become one of the most recognised "shamed MPs".
The Tories know this, smell blood, and are determined to decapitate such a high-profile Labour candidacy. The woman lined up to try to topple Ms Smith is Karen Lumley, a 46-year-old councillor and businesswoman who has lost to Labour twice before in Redditch but is convinced that victory will be hers this time around.
Both candidates are formidable female politicians with a strong local base, and have been living in the area long enough to be well-known to voters. And while both parties campaign on the same two main issues here (economic recovery and antisocial behaviour), the Tories have two trump cards to play on the doorsteps: the ace of expenses and the ace of Lenches. "We've done a lot of work out in the Lenches and met a lot of very nice people who say they have every intention of voting Conservative," says Ms Lumley. "We're working very hard but nothing is being taken for granted."
Complacency is a vice neither candidate can afford. At the outdoor food market in Redditch town centre there's little political consensus among the traders other than general antipathy towards all politicians. They are angry about Jacqui Smith's expenses but hardly queuing up to vote Tory.
Brian Taylor, 55, who runs a perfume stall outside the Kingfisher Shopping Centre, says with a tired shrug: "None of the main parties will be getting my vote. Spiralling fuel prices, unemployment, bankers being bailed out – you just feel so let down by the lot of them. Jacqui Smith is actually quite well thought of as a local MP but the expenses stuff was so disappointing. Karen Lumley might win but she won't be getting my vote. I'll probably go for Ukip or BNP."
Leslie Macintyre is one of the few market traders willing to cash her chips with the Tories. She and her husband, Paul, proudly point out that their 17-year-old son Taylor is busily working the stall alongside them.
"What we need is a government that looks after hard-working families," says Mrs Macintyre, 44. "We've brought Taylor up to know that if he wants to get ahead in life he has to be prepared to work. Too many people under Labour have been allowed to claim disability benefits or shy away from working, it's outrageous."
To the exasperation of his wife, Mr Macintyre has never voted. "That causes no end of arguments in our house," he says. Mrs Macintyre is adamant about casting her ballot: "I think for women it's doubly important. It wasn't all that long ago that we didn't even have the vote."
Paul Walker, a 42-year-old former soldier who now runs a fruit stall, is the most politically enigmatic of the day's traders. He says he likes Jacqui Smith and describes her as a "good local MP". But both Labour and the Tories, he says, have turned Britain lazy. "It's like the whole country has just been watered down," he explains. "That's why I'll vote BNP."
He stops to rearrange his display of bananas and quickly adds: "But it's not because I'm racist." At that moment a middle-aged Muslim woman walks up and asks for half a pound of potatoes. Mr Walker replies with a competent grasp of pidgin Bengali. "You want aloo?" he asks. "Boro or choto?" (big or small). After serving her, he turns back to me. "It's the people who don't work that bother me," he says. "The colour of their skin doesn't matter."
Out in the verdant villages to the south of Redditch – rural Worcestershire – life is a little slower and traditionally Tory-leaning, although Labour has always had just enough voters to hold on to the constituency. Redditch itself, surrounded by fast-moving ring roads, roundabouts and industrial estates, is a fast-growing new town of 77,000 inhabitants where housing and jobs are in short supply. It should be fertile hunting ground for Labour but, as the market traders show, the typical class divisions that once defined Britain's two main voting blocs are blurred beyond recognition.
The village of Feckenham, four miles to the south of Redditch town, has those picture postcard qualities; a co-operative village shop, two pretty pubs and each summer the residents place tables end to end in the square next to the church for a village picnic.
Ian Ridley, 55, is using a moment of warm sunshine to repaint the windows on his house next to the village square. "I'm a Labour voter and always have been," he explains. "I think a lot of people expect everyone round here to be Tory but it's not as simple as that."
The expenses scandal, he says, never really bothered him. "I'm relatively cynical about politicians. I've always thought you've got to be a pretty corrupt person to do the job so the expenses stuff never surprised me. But Labour get my vote because of what they stand for. My wife's a little different – for her, personality politics plays a big role."
It's precisely because the constituents of Redditch are so undecided that there's still everything to play for. The Tories should be winning by a mile. Either the Conservatives are failing to get their message across, or the former home secretary is still respected in her home town. It's worth noting that a "Get Jacqui Out" petition, organised on the same model that forced the neighbouring Tory MP in Bromsgrove, Julie Kirkbride, to step down within weeks of the expense scandal erupting, fizzled out in Redditch. Supposedly 6,000 signatures were collected, but have never been made available to scrutinise.
One local journalist, who has been working in the region for 30 years but asked not to be named because his paper remains neutral on the election, put it thus: "If you asked me six months ago I'd have said Jacqui was dead in the water. But I think a lot of the expenses anger has died down. She's seen as a good local MP and may just about hang on."
All of which keeps Ms Smith ebullient. "I'm a politician and I do elections," she concludes. "You can't have a democracy if people won't fight elections because they think they might lose. It's for the people of Redditch to decide who their MP is going to be, not the national media and politically motivated campaigns."
Smith's battle against history
Jacqui Smith was the first female home secretary in British history, but her Cabinet career was overshadowed by becoming the first politician to be publicly caught out in the MPs' expenses scandals. She was caught out because her husband had put in a claim for two pornographic movies, charged to the taxpayer. It also emerged that she had been claiming for her sister's house as her main residence.
Redditch 2005 Votes and Share
*LABOUR Jacqui Smith 18,188 43.79%
*CONSERVATIVE Karen Lumley 16,060 38.67%
*LIB DEMS Nigel Hicks 5,904 14.21%
LAB Majority 2,128 5.12%.........
Electorate 65,970 Turnout 62.96%
Results for 2005 implied from new boundary calculationsReuse content