Newbury, a classic Middle England constituency that has bypassed the Tories for a decade

In this part of England, the mood of cynicism has been suspended, at least for this election
Click to follow
The Independent Online

History can partially repeat itself. In 1868, a Tory called Richard Benyon won a seat in Berkshire by defeating an aristocratic Liberal. For weeks afterwards, the Newbury magistrates' court was trying charges of disorder and riot. One of the worst riots arose out of an argument over the price of rabbit skins.

History can partially repeat itself. In 1868, a Tory called Richard Benyon won a seat in Berkshire by defeating an aristocratic Liberal. For weeks afterwards, the Newbury magistrates' court was trying charges of disorder and riot. One of the worst riots arose out of an argument over the price of rabbit skins.

One hundred and thirty seven years later, a descendant of Richard Benyon, also called Richard, is trying to win Newbury for the Conservatives. This means overturning the 2,415 majority currently held by David Rendel, an old Etonian Liberal.

This time, there are unlikely to be riots about rabbit skins, or anything else. Even so it will be a fierce contest. This is the third time that today's Richard Benyon has fought the constituency, and he knows every inch of it. He is also boosted by numerous devoted volunteers. But the Liberals are expert at pavement politics. They are also adept at busing hordes of anoraked youngsters from constituency to constituency to hand out large amounts of literature and give the impression of great activity.

In Newbury, however, pavement politics may not work in the Liberals' favour. They have the misfortune to control West Berkshire Council, which is good at spending money. It recently decreed that the centre of Newbury should be tarted up at a cost of £1.2m, including £600,000-worth of Italian granite chips.

That is the sort of statistic which can get through to the harassed mother with two kids and a long shopping list. Billions and percentages of GDP may pass people by; £600,000 on granite chips makes them angry. I heard Richard Benyon tell Saturday shoppers that the Liberal council was spending money as though it were winning the lottery every week. This was effective. Perhaps Italian granite chips are the 21st century equivalent of rabbit skins.

There are more general issues. For decades, Newbury was a safe Conservative seat, and anyone driving around it can see why. Bustling towns, pretty villages, large houses, paddocks: this is traditional Tory territory and for decades, it unhesitatingly returned Conservative MPs.

Then in 1993, disaster struck. At that time there was a Tory whip called David Lightbown. A former military policeman with the build of a small mountain, Mr Lightbown disapproved on principle of new MPs and MPs with fancy ideas. Once, when denouncing the sins of the Tories' 1992 parliamentary intake, he reached his peroration: "And they can't even live.'' He was referring to Judith Chaplin, a former adviser to John Major, who had just died after only a year as Newbury's MP. The Liberals won the by-election by 22,000 votes.

That was at the height of the early Nineties' recession. A lot of habitual Tories were losing faith in the party's ability to look after their interests. Within a few months, another early death, John Smith's, brought Tony Blair to the Labour leadership. With the Liberals as covert allies, he set out to persuade the middle classes of middle England to desert the Tories. In Berkshire and Oxfordshire, this strategy has had successes. Labour holds Oxford East and both Reading seats, which all used to be Tory, and is even mounting a challenge in Wantage.

Wantage too seems natural Tory territory. A large slice of south Oxfordshire, it was held for 22 years by Robert Jackson, who had been a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher. Earlier this year, he defected to Labour. But even while Mr Jackson was still posturing as a dilettant Conservative, the Tory vote in Wantage had gone into genteel decline. A Fellow of All Souls, Robert Jackson is more at ease on High Table than on the High Street. By 2001, his share of the vote had fallen to below 40 per cent, with Labour and the Liberals both in pursuit.

In neighbouring Witney, David Cameron, one of the Tory party's brightest prospects, had less than 50 per cent of the vote at the last election. Along the road, the Liberals are digging in hard at Oxford West and Abingdon, which should also be natural Tory territory. The Tory tribal vote is not what it was.

It is well known that the current electoral boundaries work against the Tories, who would receive many fewer seats than Labour did for the same share of the vote. There ought to be fewer constituencies in the inner cities and more in counties such as Berkshire or Oxfordshire. By correcting some of the imbalances, the next redistribution of seats will help the Tories. But they will not be able to derive the maximum benefit unless they can firm up the sort of people on whom they used to depend.

One problem here is the young. Most voters around 30 or younger have only known the Tory party in adversity and decline. Although their parents may regard it as a bastion of middle-class interests, they have yet to be convinced. Many of the towns in this area of the Thames Valley are growing rapidly and attracting these sort of youngsters, who will be crucial swing voters.

On Saturday afternoon, trying to find some of them, I came across Cheap Street in Newbury. Long ago maybe it was cheap. Today, it has a row of five estate agents. At 4pm, they were all still busy. In one, Mike Pickford, a manager, gave a succinct summary of many thirtysomethings' attitude to this election.

"I'm not going to say how I'll vote. I may not even decide until polling day. But I'm going to study all the literature, because this election's important. It's about people's futures - pensions, personal finance, taxes. I'll be looking for a party which doesn't make too many promises and sounds as if it'll keep them. I prefer politicians who'll admit that they can't please all the people.'' When I suggested that this was a bit much to ask of any politician during an election, there was laughter from Mr Pickford and his team.

That said, Richard Benyon does economise with his promises. He has one line that he often uses on the doorstep, which seemed to work. "This Government is spending over £500bn a year. That's a five, followed by eleven noughts: a humongous amount of money, and we Tories are not going to cut it. But with all that money, why shouldn't we have more bobbies out on patrol instead of pushing paper around in police stations? Why can't we have better discipline in schools, some help for savers who are building up a pension, and secure boundaries?

"We're not promising to put a man on Mars,'' he will continue. "We're not promising that it'll be dry throughout July. We're not even promising to win back the Ashes. We are promising clean hospital wards. Why should today's patients have to put up with standards of hygiene that Florence Nightingale would have found unacceptable?'' This seems to work, as it obeys E M Forster's injunction: only connect.

A lot of voters are waiting for politicians with whom they can connect. Over the past few years, there has been mounting evidence of public disillusion with politics. To many voters, the way in which politicians act and talk has all the obscurity of Harry Potter's game of quidditch and none of the charm. But at least in this part of England, that mood of cynicism has been suspended, at least for this election.

There has been more seriousness and less apathy than I had expected. Not that it is all serious. As political battle buses pass, festooned with posters, microphones blaring, there is a certain amount of wry amusement among those on the pavement, many of whom react as if this were the modern-day equivalent of the circus coming to town. But many voters also want a chance to question their politicians.

There are striking exceptions, as some canvassers discovered. It was a delightful moment. A doorbell was rung, and almost instantly a splendid old battleaxe appeared. She was clearly aware that political activists were in the street, and she had been nursing her wrath to keep it warm. As soon as she opened the door she lunged towards the nearest rosetted figure, who jumped back like a postman pursued by a rottweiler. "I'm having nothing to do with none of you,'' she spat at him. Having rocked grammar to the foundations, she then slammed her door and shook her house to its foundations.

Voters like her are necessary in general elections, which always need a music hall aspect. But at least around Newbury, they are greatly outnumbered by electors who are taking politics seriously. A fortnight on Thursday, the many undecideds among them are likely to award their vote to the party which they think takes them most seriously. Whatever the opinion polls may say, that should be an incentive to every candidate in a marginal seat.