The European Elections: Discontented Hertford dumps Tories - Charles Oulton finds the mood has changed significantly in the affluent Home Counties

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The Independent Online
UNTIL LAST Thursday, the county town of Hertford with its castle and expensive antique shops had been a typical Home Counties Conservative stronghold. Most people are in work, 40 per cent in the town and surrounding areas have at least two cars and more than 70 per cent own their homes.

The issues were never VAT on fuel or the level of council tax: it was more likely to be a middle- class obsession, like the current campaign to keep a few supermarket chains at bay.

Except for pre-Norman times, it has never been a breeding ground for political discontent. Yet discontent there now is, with Hertford playing its part in one of the bigger upsets of the elections, unseating the Tory MEP, Patricia Rawlings, and sending the Labour candidate, Hugh Kerr, to Strasbourg in her place.

Created in the last round of boundary changes, the constituency of Essex West and Hertfordshire East had a notional majority for the Conservatives of 28,591, an insurmountable target in normal times. Yet Mr Kerr now finds himself on his way to the European parliament with a majority of 3,067, an achievement that surprised even the most optimistic Labour supporters.

It is no fluke. The nearby constituency of Hertfordshire - which included Hertford at the last Euro election - was also in rebellious mood last week, overturning a Conservative majority of 43,342.

The discontented in Hertford appear to come from all areas of town life, ranging from the two council estates, where one 74-year-old woman voted against the Conservatives for the first time in her life, to the boardroom, where Brian Blackman, a 53-year-old director also overturned a life-time's political allegiance. He voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Georgina James, after losing faith with the Government's domestic policies.

'This government is not looking after people less fortunate than myself and do not listen to the electorate,' he said. 'Major is a problem, very much the grey man, but the whole government needs a shake up. The Conservatives would have to change things drastically if I was to consider voting for them at the next election.'

The woman on the Pinehurst council estate only voted at all in deference to her late naval husband who had always urged her to treasure her vote 'because people had died to ensure we had one'. She voted for an independent candidate 'because he had been in the Navy a long time and so must have been a good chap'.

She was not voting against the Conservatives on any European issue, a feature of the election in this town as elsewhere. She was protesting against the rise in the cost of living, as well as the Government's 'ineptness'. 'They seem frightened of each other's shadows,' she said.

Sheila Warner, a 59-year-old grandmother and long-time Conservative voter, did not go to the polls this time, but says she would not have voted for the Conservatives if she had. In spite of being brought up in a strong Labour family, she has always voted Conservative, but said the Liberal Democrats might get her vote next time.

Tony Blair would not sway this anti-Conservative, nor several others casting around for an alternative to Conservatism. 'I just don't think he would make a good leader,' she said.

Some comfort then for John Major, but not much. Others enthused about Mr Blair and few who did vote Conservative this time admitted to doing so with any enthusiasm. The fall of Basildon might have been the headline- maker, but Hertford's undoing of the Conservatives could be just as significant when the country goes back to the polls in less than three years' time.