View from the marginal battlegrounds
With the election less than two weeks away, Independent writers test the mood in the areas that matter
Friday 23 April 2010
Chester: Can Tories break through in North?
Until 1997 Chester was an impregnable citadel of Conservative support having returned just one non-Tory to Parliament in 124 years. But that changed when Labour's Christine Russell ousted the old guard with a majority of more than 10,000. Since then her support has eroded. In 2005 her majority was just 915, making this marginal seat 19th on the Tories' target list. It is a seat they must win, not only to form a government, but also to claim that they have re-emerged as a force in Northern politics.
The Tory candidate is the council's former deputy leader Stephen Mosley. He claims the situation on the doorsteps "feels very, very good". "I get the feeling people are happy with what the Tories have done locally," he says. "We fought the local elections on a message of change and that helps us with the general election campaign."
Cab driver Bernard McNicholas isn't impressed by the Conservatives' marriage tax break, and says Gordon Brown was unfairly blamed for the recession. Nevertheless, he can't foresee anything but a Tory win in Chester. "The Labour candidate's got no chance," he says. But Ms Russell is confident. "There's a good third of the voters probably who are genuinely undecided."
Essex: How will 'Essex man' vote this time?
Labour purposefully chose Basildon to unveil its Ashes to Ashes-themed poster depicting David Cameron as DCI Gene Hunt next to the words: "Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s." A Conservative strategist explained Labour's error: Basildon was "home to a million Gene Hunts" – un-PC, aspirational lower-middle-class floating voters dubbed "Essex man".
For 20 years the South Essex town has been a bellwether seat; its early reporting of results has correctly predicted the victor every time since 1992. Labour romped to power here 13 years ago but their support has been eroding. This time Labour will defend a notional majority of 1,467. It is number 31 on the Tories' target list, needing a 1.7 per cent swing to turn blue.
The seat is also a priority for its scalp, Angela Smith, a "Blair babe" and former Parliamentary Private Secretary to Gordon Brown. Few of her constituents have any criticisms of her performance and many like the fact she is an "Essex girl" born in Pitsea. Even "true blue Tories" such as south Basildon resident Mick Toomer, 55, admit they would be "devastated" if they were to lose her.
Her challenger is Conservative Stephen Metcalfe, a former councillor for Epping Forest. He sees a direct link between the failure of Labour's Gene Hunt poster and resurgent local support for his party: "Most people here look back at the Eighties as quite a good time. They bought their home, they tended to prosper; they felt things were simpler back then."
Both candidates are untainted by the expenses scandal, although it has contributed to disillusionment with the political classes. But the Conservatives' strident rhetoric and manifesto plans for a cap on immigration have been well received.
Taunton Deane: Can Lib Dems hold off Tory surge?
In the Somerset village of Staple Fitzpaine, population 151, it's not Cameron, Brown or Clegg who are weighing on voters' minds. "We've had terrible trouble getting the council to sort out the cavity walls. It gets ever so draughty in the winter," says Mr Cridge, 80. "The last government didn't do a thing for me."
Taking notes is Mark Formosa, a 33-year-old Conservative who is hoping to become the next MP in Taunton Deane. If Cameron is to win a majority, the path to No 10 runs through the West Country, where the Tories are attempting to prise seats away from the resurgent Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has a notional majority of 2,000, but local voters have traditionally done no favours to the incumbent. Taunton Deane is the only seat in the country where the sitting MP has been thrown out in every election for 13 years. "People round here vote on a local issue basis and if they do that the Lib Dems will get in," said Ian Angel, a shop owner.
London: Will Labour lose chattering classes?
There is no more potent a symbol of New Labour than Islington South – home to the apocryphal chattering media classes and the place where the Blairs lived before their move to Downing Street in 1997. But now there are only 484 votes between the Labour candidate, Emily Thornberry, and her Lib Dem challenger, Bridget Fox. And if the surge in popular support for Nick Clegg and his party translates into votes, then Islington should be a lost cause.
Seven years after the invasion of Iraq, this is clearly still a big issue for voters. A man asks Ms Thornberry: "How many Iraqi civilians have died?" She doesn't know, but points out that she voted against the motion to invade in 2003. "We can't always get it right. And when we don't, I'm not afraid to say that," she says. On the doorsteps she assures voters, "At least you know what you're getting with Labour," which doesn't seem the most encouraging of political slogans.
Ms Fox seems positive about the election. She points out the neon-orange "We're Winning" posters which beam from many of the Georgian windows. One elderly lady remarks that Ms Fox "seems a lot more confident than last time you came around". She replies, "Well, we weren't doing so well then but we're doing much better now."
Birmingham: Can Labour hold on in Midlands?
In many ways, the gleaming new £627m Queen Elizabeth Hospital is emblematic of the New Labour years: impressive new buildings and public services but a big financial hangover has now well and truly arrived, and people worry whether the public finances can be rebuilt.
Labour's Gisela Stuart, who has held the seat since 1997, draws attention to the hospital on her campaign leaflets under the headline: "On the Up!". But if the opinion polls are right, David Cameron should easily win back one of his party's traditional urban strongholds. With Ms Stuart defending a notional majority of 2,187, the Conservative candidate, Deirdre Alden, needs only a 2.75 per cent swing to enter the Commons.
Ms Stuart's opponents trumpet the high cost of the hospital, which was built under the Government's controversial private finance initiative. The Birmingham Post reported in February that taxpayers would end up forking out £2.58bn for the QE in interest and service charges, a mark-up of around 300 per cent on the value of the building.
But Ms Stuart is adamant that the hospital – which employs 6,000 people – is a vote-winner. "We're promising quicker tests for patients with suspected cancer. We want [to be able to offer] proton beam cancer therapy and the Department of Health is inviting bids for the first one in the UK, so we're fighting for that."
Her opponent, Ms Alden, is one 12 Conservative councillors in the constituency, a Tory clean sweep and a reflection of the party's dominance of Birmingham politics over the past decade. A Tory-Lib Dem coalition has run the council since 2004, ending 20 years of Labour rule.
Ms Alden has been campaigning hard on the high cost of the QE. She wrote in an email: "I have not met a single person who has said they are going to vote Labour because we are having a new hospital. Edgbaston's new hospital is huge, and it is costing a huge amount, which is already starting to worry some local health professionals."
The Tory message appears to be hitting home. Many are proud of the new hospital but want to tackle the deficit. Natalie Williams, 44, voted Labour last time but will vote Conservative on 6 May. She says Ms Stuart is "a great lady", but is convinced by Mr Cameron's plan to tackle the deficit. "Brown has taken us from £6bn to £160bn of debt. It is an easy mantra to say it's time for a change, but I look at it and think, 'We're in a mess and keeping the same gentleman in is definitely not going to get us out of it'," she said.
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