The European Elections: Battersea keeps an eye on its own problems: London South West: Tories see chance safely to register dissatisfaction with government. Sandra Barwick reports

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The Independent Online
Close to Clapham Junction station a voter in the Euro-constituency of London South West was leaning against a wall, languid in summer heat reminiscent of the drowsy days of 1914 before the First World War began.

He was about 20 - just the right age to be called up in any European war arising in the next two decades. Would a European Union reduce that risk, or not? What choice was he making?

'Not interested,' he said. 'Nothing to do with me.' Was he employed, or unemployed, to be so disconnected from events? His blue eyes flickered up and down the street. 'I'm a burglar.'

Down the road three more young men were hanging around on a street corner. All denied they were local. One said, in a strong south London accent, that he came from Liverpool. 'Europe's complete shit, innit.' So what problem in their lives needed a political solution? 'Too much police about,' the youngest said.

Battersea is one of the tougher parts of the most marginal Labour Euro-constituency, but one which also holds plenty of leafy middle- class suburbs, including Wimbledon and Putney. But the debate still does not seem to be focused on European issues.

The appearance of Lord Tebbit in the old Battersea Town Hall on Wednesday night, to warn against the dangers of federalism, drew an audience of only around 150 staunch Conservative activists out of an electorate numbering 479,246. There were no demonstrators, no hecklers passionate to sell the glories of a Union.

'I saw in a recent poll that I'm in the one per cent of the population that knows who is president, the site of the European Parliament, its majority party and the name of their MEP,' said Adrian Fannon, a member of the Tooting Conservative Association. 'The people who are most concerned about Europe are the Euro- sceptics, and they are probably not going to vote Conservative.'

They are more likely to do so in London South West than elsewhere. Philip Treleaven, a professor in computer science at University College, London, is a strongly anti-federalist Tory Euro-candidate, and therefore the only one supported by Lord Tebbit. He was selected on the night Britain left the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

'The difficulty is motivating the workers,' he said. 'On the doorstep the majority of people have a gut feeling they would like a Common Market rather than a United States of Europe . . . The trouble is you have to reach half a million people.'

Professor Treleaven's impression reflects national polls showing British doubt about the advantages of a Euro-state. But getting the message across to voters - ignorant even of their present MEP's name - that he is Euro- sceptic may prove a difficult task.

Andrew Pearce, a contract administrator in an independent gas company who lives in the Conservative fortress of Wandsworth, is an illustration of that problem. 'I think we should keep some independence,' he said. 'I don't want a federal Europe. But I haven't made up my mind whether to vote Tory or Liberal. I don't know anything about the candidates.'

The area overlaps with the constituencies of six Conservative MPs. Professor Treleaven's workers take heart from the fact that in the May local elections, Wandsworth went against the trend. If voters repeat their performance then, Conservatives claim that they will win by 5,000 votes, and Labour admit it will be a close fight. But that is a big 'if'.

Wandsworth residents voted Conservative in the local elections to keep a low council tax and out of fear of a 'loony left' takeover. In a European poll they may not feel so inhibited. One Conservative worker said that the message he was receiving from Tory voters was that they now saw a safe chance to boot their government up the backside.

Labour canvassers have heard that message too. Anita Pollack, the sitting Labour MEP, a former editor in publishing, is likely to benefit from a Conservative swing to the Liberal Democrats, who won fewer than 9,000 votes last time. Her spokesman said that she too is finding on the doorstep that the issues are not about Europe but domestic matters like local hospitals, tax rises, rail-freight routes and crime. She may also, as a former Greenpeace activist and Labour's environmental speaker, take some votes from the party in third place in 1989 - the Green Party. If, that is, her voters find out what her name is before next Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)

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