Election '97: Barely ruffled waters of Avon

Stratford was a safe Conservative seat - until its MP defected to Labour. Hester Lacey takes soundings
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The Independent Online
Stratford-on-Avon is one of the juiciest plums in the Tory pudding; it is among their 10 safest seats, with a Conservative majority of 21,000 votes. It is a cosy, rural, olde-worlde, middle-class enclave, far in spirit if not in distance from the dark satanic mills of Birmingham and Coventry. The Labour candidate, Birmingham train-driver Stewart Stacey, can't be feeling too confident ("we're not holding our breath," admitted Labour's regional press office). Stratford's tea-rooms are genteel, as are the local accents; a typical Stratford des res is wisteria-clad, authentically wood-beamed, and eye-wateringly expensive; the frock shops are smart (Jaeger and Country Casuals); it's a copper-bottomed, rock-solid, true-blue Conservative nirvana.

And yet the last few years have not been good for the local Tories, shaken by the defection of their MP, Alan Howarth, to Labour; he will contest the safe Labour seat of Newport East this time. Even before the defection, Mr Howarth, a former Education minister, was known for challenging government policy he disagreed with, ranging from discrimination against the disabled, to the Jobseekers' Bill, to education under-resourcing. His switch to Labour, on the eve of the 1995 Tory conference, was a major PR coup for Tony Blair and provoked furious quotes about "back-stabbing" and howls of "scoundrel" from former colleagues.

His replacement (chosen from 219 hopefuls) is John Maples, advertising chairman and former Treasury minister, who lost his Lewisham West seat in the last election. Mr Maples's main claim to fame is the "Maples memorandum", leaked in November 1994, which set out in blunt, unflattering terms why the Tories would lose the next election.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been beavering quietly away; since the 1992 election they have taken control of the local council, on which their candidate, Susan Juned, serves. They are hoping that on 1 May, at the least, Stratford will go from being an untouchable Tory surety to a marginal.

Finding voters in the centre of Stratford is a challenge. Americans and Japanese doggedly slog round the Shakespeare trail and olde Englyshe gifte shoppes (Wedgwood, pewter, celtic-style knitted sweaters, Union Jack postcards). In the immaculately maintained Bancroft Gardens, on the banks of the Avon, however, the sun had tempted people out for lunch last Friday. Kim, Chris and John, gardeners responsible for the bright beds, were lounging over their sandwiches. They had a list of concerns to reel off. "Job security, the health service, education, privatisation..."

"What we need is jobs, a decent day's work for a decent day's pay," said Kim over his hard-boiled egg. "I was recently unemployed and when I went to the Job Centre they said they wanted to help 17- to 24-year-olds. I'm 50, I don't mind saying so, and so what use is that to me? People don't believe Labour will be different, but people wanting a change is how Labour will get in."

"But they'll need a second term to get anything done," added Chris.

Mr and Mrs Tynan, local residents for 40 years, were sunning themselves on a bench. "We just don't know how to vote this time!" said Mrs Tynan, with a laugh. "All the parties are the same. Mr Blair is trying to be more Tory than the Tories, isn't he?"

"People complain about the National Health Service, but if you have to go into hospital, they're brilliant," said Mr Tynan.

"Oh, yes, we don't complain where we are, do we, Michael? We do not!" agreed his wife.

"Better the devil you know," said Mr Tynan with a wry smile. "We remember the last Labour government. It was chaos; strikes, they allowed the unions to rule, they nearly bankrupted the country."

"I'm voting for the Liberal Democrats," said an elderly lady coming out of the library near Shakespeare's birthplace (admission pounds 3.60) with a wicker basket full of books. "They have the best stance on ecological issues and I don't think anyone else takes it seriously enough. And they don't have any of these chickens."

Clare Parkin, marshalling three small children, felt similarly. "I shall try the Libs. I don't respect Labour, they haven't stuck to their principles. I thought Alan Howarth was okay, but in a general election you vote for parties, not personalities."

"I shall vote Conservative, always have, always will. This is no time to flirt with the Liberals, this election is going to be a sticky one," snapped a suited businessman.

Mr Day, chatting with Mr Giles on the pavement outside a low-beamed pub, confessed: "I'm voting for the Referendum Party."

"Are you really? Me, too," roared Mr Giles. They shook hands enthusiastically. Publisher and publican respectively, Europe was the reason.

"Goldsmith doesn't want to get in, he wants to stop us losing everything we've got. He's invested pounds 40m of his own money because he believes in this country!" explained Mr Day.

"We're being sold down the river," added Mr Giles. "There's no jobs, no money. I remember the days when I could put a big roll of notes in my back pocket and go out anywhere, I wouldn't do it now!"

"Enoch Powell - we want him back, write that down," said Mr Day. "I'd like to see immigration really tightened up, no asylum seekers slipping through, they are only here for the pickings."

In the Great Garden, on the site of another former home of Shakespeare, Catherine Robb and Josephine Haliki, both 22, both students, were soaking up the sun. "It's time to give someone else a chance, I'm going for the Lib Dems," said Catherine.

"Yes, no fascists or communists," said Josephine. "The Tories are rats and Labour are anoraks."

Tony, a taxi driver plying his trade from the station, refused to be drawn. "I'm not saying a word. The company I work for has a strict policy of not discussing the election at all with passengers, because people get so very het up about it."