Tories trapped in the Midlands battleground

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COLIN BROWN FINDS THE ELECTORS OF DUDLEY WEST IN THE MOOD TO REGISTER A PROTEST VOTE AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT IN THIS WEEK'S POLL Conservative voters in the Tory heartlands of the West Midlands are almost certain to deliver another blow to John Major this week by swinging to Labour in the Dudley West by-election.

Labour believes it is set to become their first gain from the Tories since the 1992 general election, proof that Tony Blair's leadership is winning over Tory voters. Ministers, punch-drunk with by-election defeats, will seek to shrug it off as another bout of mid-term blues, to be cured as the economy delivers the "feel good factor''.

The message is more worrying for Mr Major. Dudley West, a prosperous slice of middle England sandwiched between the urban sprawl to the west of Birmingham and the greenbelt `Archers` country, has emerged from recession.

Unemployment fell by 14 per cent in 1993-4; it is 38.9 per cent lower than in 1986 at 7.4 per cent, two per cent below the national average. The economic profile (see panel) shows it is a typical Tory seat, with high home and car ownership. It is alreadyenjoying the economic revival promised by the rest of the country, but the ``feel good factor'' is elusive.

Ministers have returned shaking their heads with dismay at what is going on in Dudley West. ``It isn't in recession. There are nice houses, plenty of shops, it looks very prosperous, but we are not getting the credit. There is a sort of sullenness about the voters at the moment,'' said one Cabinet source.

There is a strong whiff of decay about the Government eminating from this Thatcherite corner of the West Midlands. It went Tory in 1979 and John Blackburn, whose death caused the by-election, held it with increasing majorities - 1,139 in the year Baroness Thatcher was swept to power; 8,723 in 1983; 10,224 in 1987. His majority was halved to 5,789 at the 1992 general election.

What has gone wrong? The electorate is unsure, but is disillusioned with Mr Major and his government. Many are saying: ``It's time for a change.'' Rosemary Lanbourne, 61, in a tidy semi-detached bungalow in the Wordsley area of the constituency, summed it up: ``The Government doesn't seem to know where it's going...''

Fifteen years in office have created a long list of reasons to complain about the Government. Graham Postles, 37, an insurance company director, cannot be blamed. He has run an energetic campaign - last week he was accused of ``bully boy tactics'' against a Labour pensioner -and has run, raincoat flapping, the gauntlet of the doorsteps in Tory wards.

VAT on fuel was high in the list of `hates' among the voters, but there are plenty of others - a past Tory voter, a British Rail employee, was threatening to defect in protest at British Rail privatisation; a self-employed draughtsman with a detached house, a working wife, and two cars in the drive, complained about the general state of the economy.

Tories in Dudley West want to use their votes on Thursday to make a protest, if they turn out at all, and like all the spectacular Tory losses in the last Parliament, they may return to the Tory fold at the general election. Dudley West, with an electorate of 87,425, will not even exist by the time of the next election; it is being squeezed into a new seat, Halesowen and Rowley Regis, with a electorate of 68,414, under the boundary changes. Whoever wins on Thursday night will have to seek a nomination for the new seat in competition with other neighbouring MPs.

To escape the turmoil in his party at Westminster, Mr Postles has tried to fight the Conservative campaign on local issues. His `Dudley West agenda' highlighted plans to expand the Merry Hill Centre - one of the biggest shopping complexes in the UK - to provide up to 2,000 jobs. Unemployent among women is 4.7 per cent compared to 9.3 per cent among men. Voters complain that the Merry Hill centre expansion is providing part-time work, mainly for women, and does little for jobless men seeking full-time work.

The voters reacted to the reversal on VAT with a combination of relief and criticism of a Government in chaos. They see it divided, lacking clear leadership, but still seem to like Mr Major. Ditching the Prime Minister will not provide an easy answer, although a Tory victory against all the odds would transform his position.

Labour's candidate, Ian Pearson, 35, joint chief executive of West Midlands Enterprise Board, has had to guard against complacency to get the Tory deserters to vote. That has not been easy after Labour gains in three safe Tory wards, which suggested Labour could be heading for a landslide majority of more than 10,000.

The Tories insist there is no enthusiasm for Labour. If the Tories desert to the Liberal Democrats in large numbers, the Tories could still lose the seat to Labour. That will unnerve many Tory MPs in the South West, where the Liberal Democrats are breathing down their necks.

Constituency Profile The Tories have lost three seats in by-elections since 1992, all to the Liberal Democrats: Newbury swing from Conservative to Liberal Democrat of 28.4 per cent.

Christchurch, swing 35.4 per cent, Con to Lib Dem.

Eastleigh, 21.4 per cent swing Con to Lib Dem.

Labour would need a swing of about 4.1 per cent to take Dudley West.

Constituency profile: 73.9 per cent owner occupiers; 74.4 per cent of households own cars; 81.4 per cent have jobs; 15.2 per cent are of pensionable age.

1992 Result: J Blackburn (Con) 34,729; K J Lomax (Lab) 28,940; G Lewis (LD) 7,446.