What Britain really thinks

What is going to matter most to people in the coming general election? Do they really loathe Tony Bl

The yuppie flats on the quayside are nearing completion. This is the town of Harvey Nicks, the new Leeds where cash is being disposed of in large quantities. I am talking to Steve Hyde, a 55-year-old former squaddie who now works as a physiotherapist for local rugby clubs. One day a week, he earns extra cash driving a cab. He takes me around Holbeck, pointing out where a prostitute was recently murdered. This place is not as pleasant, he says, as the marketing hoardings would have you believe.

I have just embarked on a three-day journey to try to find out what people are thinking and saying about their lives and their politicians as the general election looms ever larger. I have come with an empty notebook, and I hope no preconceptions, to spend time with about 80 people from all walks of life. These are their views, unvarnished . . .

Steve has been Labour all his life, but says he won't vote any more. He has been paying his stamps since 1966, but says on the two occasions he needed sickness payments he was assessed and humiliated. The last time, "There were 18 people in the room, only three white faces, and we were the only ones rejected." The money, he says, all goes "to our foreign cousins". I ask him, very simply, his view of Tony Blair. This is his reply: "He's a smarmy, two-faced bastard. He couldn't lie straight in bed, he's so bent." Michael Howard? "They all piss in the same pot." I ask him about Iraq: his friend contracted lymphatic cancer in the first Gulf war and has yet to receive adequate compensation. "You even have to buy your own boots. We're not looked after like the Yanks are." Steve admits he is doing a further-education course in physiology. This, surely, is social mobility in action. He should be grateful. He is not. He would love to move to Cyprus to join his sister.

It is 5pm and LA Bowl is beginning to fill up. I talk to Martin and Maria Miller. They have brought their sons to the bowling alley for a birthday celebration. He is a bid manager for a construction firm. She has given up her job as a hospital ward clerk to look after the kids. "As someone said in the 1970s, we've never had it so good," says Martin. They both remember life under Margaret Thatcher, when "a lot of our friends were made redundant". Now, with their own home in Pudsey and a good job, they feel confident. "I don't know anyone who's down about things," he says. The local schools are good. Maria says of Blair: "I like him, I really do." What of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister? Martin says: "He's doing so well with the money that I'd like him to stay where he is." Still, they would happily move to Florida.

At the Leeds University students' union, Kim Shutler assembles a mini focus group. She admits that in one respect the group is unrepresentative. These young people care about politics. Otherwise they would have carried on drinking. "Apathy is the bane of our lives," says Kim. She is the women's rep. In the union elections a few days earlier, only 2,500 students voted out of a total of 33,000. I guess that, of the seven students I speak to, five will vote Liberal Democrat or for Respect. The other two are toying with Labour or the Tories, but feel awkward saying so. Lauren Rusted, a fourth-year languages student, is hoping to go into fashion journalism. She might actually vote for Howard. The others mock her. I ask her to explain. "Maybe I'm just Conservative in my nature." She says there is a "big void in the market for a new political party. None of the current lot answers to our needs." Vicky Loverseed, who is taking cultural studies, says she, too, is "ever so tempted" to vote Tory, particularly over what she believes to be their opposition to ID cards, but is more likely to pick Labour. It seems that those who have anything good to say about Tony Blair tend to do so apologetically.

The Leeds North-West constituency is a three-way marginal. Labour, whose new candidate is as anti-war as her predecessor, is struggling for every vote. The Lib Dems say their canvassing is showing them "ludicrously ahead". I drive to the suburb of Bramhope, to the Lawnswood Arms. Even where the government should get credit, often it does not. Maurice Baylis, a retired businessman, puts the success of the economy down to the Bank of England. "It's they who've controlled inflation," he says. "Nobody can say they haven't done a good job." Gordon Brown's Scottishness bothers some people. He represents what Maurice and his friends call "the Scottish Stealth Society". The Deputy Prime Minister fares little better. Martin Parry, a retired architect, calls John Prescott "the gypsy-lover".

The Conservative candidate, George Lee, says: "There is a running joke in Otley: if you see a policeman, ask him if he's lost." I go to find out. It is Friday morning and market day. I meet a couple of Afghan stallholders, covered up against the biting cold, selling olives and garlic. I ask them where they are from. "Camberwell," they reply. The second-hand charity book stall is doing a brisk trade. In three weeks the volunteers have collected hundreds of pounds for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, an air ambulance service and a defibrillator for the local hospital. These volunteers are active in their communities. They have a strong sense of duty, and believe those in authority are not doing theirs. I ask Jenny Booth for her general view on politicians. "They are all rogues, thieves and vagabonds," she says. And they pay themselves pensions that are far too high. She says when she broke both elbows a few years ago the local hospital couldn't find a doctor to treat her. These personal experiences count for more than any government statistic. Jenny brings up the war without prompting. Her concern is the treatment of Dr David Kelly. "What they did to that chap, they deserve to be shot." Des Ellis, another volunteer, says he has voted for all three main parties in his time, but is inclined towards the Lib Dems. He respects their new top layer of tax: "It's time the money was shared out a bit." He admires Margaret Thatcher, but believes choosing Michael Howard as leader was the Conservatives' "biggest mistake".

I head off the motorway, just south of Sheffield, for the village of Todwick in Rother Valley, as safe a Labour seat as you can find. I want to see if people think and act differently when they know their vote won't make a difference. In the staff room of Todwick Infant and Junior School, I meet Christine Moore, the school secretary. The kids cluster across the hall, acting out pranks for Red Nose Day. Christine says that apart from the odd bit of graffiti the area doesn't have too many problems. The schools are good, and so are the hospitals. This is virtually an all-white neighbourhood, although the one Pakistani family and one Chinese girl have fitted in well. She cannot understand the "whingeing and moaning" going on about the government. As for the Prime Minister, she says: "I like him. I think he is a decent person." There is almost a shame factor in admitting to liking him.

A group of parents is waiting on the path. Cheryl Barton is married to a local Labour councillor. She should be sympathetic to the government. She is not. She worked for 26 years as a critical care nurse. "I've given my bit, but the NHS has gone to the dogs." She says money is not the answer, but doesn't know what is. She plans to open her own private clinic specialising in Botox treatments. Mark Jordan, one of the waiting dads, says Blair is "all right". He is one of the few people I meet who defends Iraq. "The Americans backed us in World War Two, so we had to help them this time," he says. But he is toying with voting for the British National Party. I ask him why, given that there doesn't seem to be an immigration problem here. "They're starting to creep in." He tells me the next village has a group of Senegalese. Joanne Ashton says people leave their front doors and cars unlocked. She wants to preserve the village way of life. "The amount of people coming into this country does concern me," she says. On the main road, I meet Carol Binks. She had chosen to go private for her 11-year-old son but has had a last-minute change of mind after receiving good reports of the local comprehensive. She had been "pleasantly surprised" by Blair until Iraq came about. "At the time, we didn't know he was lying." Her friend Lesley Waller, the chair of the school governors, agrees. How would she describe Blair overall? "He doesn't listen, but he does it with a smile."

I recount these conversations to the headteacher, Robert Lincoln. He says they broadly represent the parents' views. Robert, too, says he was "duped" over the war, but argues: "You can make mistakes, but that doesn't mean all your policies are bad." It wouldn't, he says, deter him from voting Labour again. He loves his job, adores his pupils, but worries for them. Some parents seem to throw money but not time at their children. He recalls one conversation in the schoolyard. "I was shocked when I heard two kids discussing which was the best hotel to stay at in Las Vegas."

At Rotherham's central library, two focus groups are arranged for me. The first one is a group of Labour activists; they are universally hostile to the war, but split on its effects. Helen and Claude Barre say they will stick with Blair "on balance". Claude points to the minimum wage and Northern Ireland, in spite of the recent setbacks, as reason enough to back him. Lewis Burrows is a party veteran. He says Blair has struck a chord with voters with his anti-terror legislation. He then describes his recent heart treatment, culminating in triple-bypass surgery. "I'm living proof of how good the National Health Service is." Nothing should be done to allow the Conservatives back in, he says. Lizzy Alageswaran provides different post-Iraq priorities: "I might be the pickled onion in the strawberry patch, but I'm through with being blackmailed into voting Labour." Most of them would regard Gordon Brown as an improvement.

Taiba Yasseen says politicians have allowed an ugly mood to develop. "As a Muslim, I now have to validate who I am every day," she says. We develop this theme in a second session involving members of the Muslim community. This is not Bradford or Oldham, yet the number of attacks on Muslims is increasing. So is the atmosphere of suspicion. Mehrban Ghani, a GP locum, says that if you walk into a shop wearing a winter coat people might be saying, "He's looking a bit big around the waist. What's he carrying there?" Mahroof Hussain, a local councillor, says politicians and the media are spreading a cumulative fear. "The average person has to start thinking, 'There must be something in it.'"

Five miles to the east, the Maltby Miners' Welfare Club is still going strong even though there isn't much left of the industry. Most of the men are now employed in railway maintenance. There is plenty of work around, although not much of it well paid. Despite everything these men have gone through, they don't like to complain. Most will vote Labour, largely because there is little choice. They appreciate what they call a "massive improvement" in their schools and hospitals. But, again, they bring up Iraq, unsolicited by me. One man says his son phoned him in despair from Basra one Sunday saying his rifle didn't work. Norman Bellinger, who worked down the pit for 28 years, says: "Blair dropped a bollock over the war. The evidence wasn't there." But he thinks the PM is "the best of the bunch". Jim Gormley says: "I'm with the French on this. We've got people dying all over the place." Talking of Europe, this is the only place where I hear anything positive about the EU. Norman now works for an Irish firm and says: "The sooner we go into the euro, the better." I tell them I am going south, to Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. They shout "scabs", but do it with a smile.

The following morning, at the Rocking Horse private nursery in Ilkeston, I meet two young women determined not to vote. This is the constituency of Erewash. It is neither a dead cert for Labour nor is it ultra-marginal. If the Tories do well here, Blair is in trouble. Andrea Bradshaw, the nursery manager, says that the parents work either at Tesco or in the NHS. This used to be known as "the fighting town". The main pastime is the pub crawl between eight pubs. Andrea recently saw a group of teenage girls trying to karate-kick down the door of a building society in broad daylight in front of a CCTV camera. Nobody intervened. The police did not come. Of Blair, she says: "He's a prat. He's full of fake promises. As soon as he comes on the telly I turn it off." What of the alternatives? Robert Kilroy-Silk is making a pitch here. She says: "I had a thing pushed through the door the other day by his people. My two dogs mashed it up. I didn't read it."

Graham Sargerson is not so dismissive. The landlord of the Dewdrop Inn, he believes Kilroy-Silk "will take a lot of BNP votes" in the area: "He's a good-looking lad." He suggests several factors at work - fear of immigration, disillusionment with Blair and a broader sense of insecurity. He points to the textile factory down the road, where 50 per cent of the workforce is to be made redundant. "In China they can make a suit for £6. Here, it costs £40."

I am late for my final destination, Saint Laurence Church in Long Eaton. I phone the vicar, Simon Ellis, for directions. "You can't miss it," he says. "It's between the town's two cathedrals - Tesco and Asda." The joke masks a terrible truth. Tens of thousands of people visit these two monoliths. About 80 attend his beautiful Norman church. Simon says public services in the town have improved. He, too, quickly turns to the war in Iraq. We did need to remove Saddam Hussein, he says, but "people feel misled". Ever so politely, he links that to a bigger fear. "I am worried that the dignity of the person is not at the heart of our politics." He worries that, in search of answers and devoid of mainstream choices, some might opt for easy and extreme solutions.

So what have I learned? I suspect there might be a silent majority still supportive of Blair but embarrassed to admit it. There is a growing interest in parties of the far right. Much of the antagonism towards the Tories is gone, but that feeling is yet to be replaced by attraction. The Lib Dems are an option, but do not figure prominently in conversations. Two conclusions are clear. Race, asylum and immigration are uppermost in people's minds. As for the war, the next time a Blairite spin-doctor or MP tells me that "out there" people are not talking about it, I will laugh at him.

Research by Nosheen Iqbal and Tom Baird