Wirral By-Election: Disaffected Tories suffer the short-term blues for

Even if Labour wins, they may find voters deserting again in a national poll. Michael Streeter reports
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The Independent Online
As you cross the border into Cheshire, a road sign announces that you are leaving The Wirral and adds enticingly: "Come Back Soon."

It is a sentiment which could be applied to disaffected Tory voters in the traditionally Conservative stronghold of Wirral South, and which may yet dent any euphoria surrounding a possible Labour victory in the by- election which is about to be called.

On the face of it, Tim Dwyer, a retired bank manager, and his wife Helen, are the stuff of dreams for Tony Blair and his election strategist. After years of supporting the Conservatives, the couple, who live in Gayton in one of the Wirral's most exclusive areas, have decided to vote Labour in the by-election.

Mr and Mrs Dwyer list the reasons for their seismic shift; the state of schools, the National Health Service and their general unease at the "sleaze" of the current administration. Even more encouragingly for Walworth Road the couple are not alone. "I think a lot of my friends will be voting Labour," Mr Dwyer, 57, said.

But there is a sting in the tail, Mr Dwyer says their voting "may change" when it comes to the national poll. Mrs Dwyer explained: "Seventeen years is a long time for a government. We want to give them a shock so they will learn a lesson, they have taken people for granted." She adds: "In the general election I would possibly vote Conservative again. If you are a creature of habit it is difficult to change."

The by-election, to elect a replacement for the late Barry Porter, who had a majority of 8,183 at the last election, is supposed to be different from mid-term polls. Coming so close to an election it is thought to give a better idea of how people will react in the real thing. But a straw poll by The Independent suggests that even if Labour pulls off an extraordinary victory in this "Surrey of the North West," the Conservative voters could return to the fold.

Relaxing in the lounge after a round of golf at Heswall golf club, Neville Owen, a retired seaman of 65, is full of dismay at the lack of leadership of the Conservatives and toys with the idea of not voting for them. However, he admitted: "If I was pushed I would probably vote Conservative. And if I thought they were going to lose it would certainly influence my vote."

Elsewhere in Heswall, which overlooks the Dee estuary, Peter Davies, a former shopowner, 61, says he will not vote for Blair's candidate because he believes the Labour-run metropolitan borough of Wirral has transferred resources from the affluent towns to the areas such as Birkenhead. "You only have to look at the state of the pavements here," he claims. Yet Mr Davies is the type of voter Labour has to target, a man who voted Liberal Democrat last time and who describes himself as a "disillusioned Conservative".

Few people have much good to say for the administration. Several former Tory voters, who refused to be named, said the party had lost their support. One stalked off saying: "I won't be voting for any of them."

Such anger with the Tories is remarkable in a constituency that boasts a low unemployment rate - 6.8 per cent - and where 81.2 per cent of people are owner-occupiers against a national average of 66 per cent. In recent years the seat, which straddles the lower part of the Wirral peninsula, has seen an influx of commuters who work in Liverpool but prefer the semi-rural life.

At the same time there is a growing Labour vote in the eastern part of the constituency, where major employers such as Unilever and Canvey Domestic Appliances are based. Nearby is Port Sunlight, the industrial village built to house employees of Lever Brothers.

This Labour support seems solid despite misgivings over the direction taken by Tony Blair. Kevin Gately, 34, a leisure manager is angry at the impact of privatisation on public services. "There are more administrators and less money going on the services themselves. Minority groups have become second-class citizens.

He will vote for Blair, but without much enthusiasm. "They [Labour] are selling themselves down the river. But I'm prepared to go along with it as long as they get in."

In the pretty village of Thornton Hough rebuilt by the first Viscount Leverhulme in a half-timbered style, Louise Fitzgibbon, 35, a shop worker, will vote Labour, citing education as her biggest concern. "My daughter is in the sixth-form and they get no help whatsoever."

Thomas Flood, 21, an actor from Bebington, will also vote for Labour but is unhappy at the party's similarities with the Tories. "They all seem to be joining into one." Some Labour voters may even switch elsewhere. Back in Thornton Hough, George Williams, 74, a retired ambulance driver who has always voted for the party, may opt for the Liberal Democrats. "With Tony Blair's policies you might as well vote Tory. At least Paddy Ashdown is telling the truth. Where's the money going to come from if he don't put up taxes?"

The air of confusion is widespread, suggesting that the by-election - still to be called - can be won and lost in the campaign. Alison Farrell, 29, a social services worker, may vote for the Liberal Democrats.

"I'm more disillusioned than I've ever been with politicians. I don't want a by-election, I want a general election. I want to get it over with."