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14 July 2003

’’Labour, Tory? It’s hard to say, innit?’’

Is the country really fed up with Tony Blair? And if so, can people swallow Gordon Brown instead? De

By Decca Aitkenhead

Great Notley Garden Village lies on the outskirts of Braintree, but it is neither a village nor a suburb. The 2,000 new houses cover nearly 500 acres of parkland, all built in the architectural style of old-fashioned Essex, but each one artfully individualised – with imitation dovecotes, faux pillars and twin carports. Some have five or six bedrooms, with Freelanders and Mercedes outside. They promise a world both child- and car-friendly; traditional village life in a modern context, at £150,000-£500,000. This is the second-generation Essex of working families, not footballers’ wives or East End emigres, and at the last general election it voted Labour.

At a recent dinner party in London, a Tory party canvasser proposed a thesis about the Labour leadership and Great Notley Garden Village. Heirs to their parents’ Thatcherite values, since the mid-1990s these residents have felt secure enough to afford the luxury of voting Labour. It is now almost a matter of class; to vote for Blair is classy, signifying social conscience and sophistication. But their generosity is being tested, for they are unhappy about paying taxes with no improvement to schools and hospitals, and feel short-changed. Something must give. They have a relationship with Tony Blair, the decent family man who feels like one of them, and would be uneasy about turning their back on him. But they would not stomach Gordon Brown.

It is not political. It is purely personal. They simply have no feeling for a gloomy Scotsman and if the Chancellor moved into No 10, it would give them just the excuse they need to return to the Tories. Great Notley Garden Village, concluded the party canvasser, is Middle England. Middle England’s vote will swing on a question of taste, and it will not swallow Gordon Brown.

This is the sort of theory that keeps Tory dreams alive. I tried testing it out one slow, cloudy Saturday in Great Notley, and the first man I met would have delighted its author. Alan Jackman was eating lunch in Tesco’s coffee shop. A local building contractor of 53, he is politically thoughtful but a lifelong floating voter.

“I voted Labour in ’97. I think there was a social awareness that Labour would be seen as the right party to vote for because they are doing their bit. When the parties are so similar, people are able to be a bit more charitable with their vote. But also, you can afford to switch your vote around. You can help the less well-off, and then you can help yourself. So I voted Tory in 2001, but next time it may well be Labour. Because I think Blair needs more time.”

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Would he be voting more for Blair than for Labour?

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“Yes, I think I probably would. Because the parties are so close, you try to find something between them that you can focus on, and it’s personality that matters. I like to see a politician being brave, and it’s nice to see one that won’t just cave in to the demands of the public and media. Blair does things he knows will be unpopular but he believes are right. Hence the reason I like him.”

What if Gordon Brown were Prime Minister at the next election? “Ah. Well. I would have to rethink it at the time. I’m not a floating voter for nothing, you know.” He is silent for a time while he thinks. “I’m just thinking,” he explains, “about the personality. You see, I’m not sure.”

But Great Notley’s other voters fit the theory less neatly. Their views are somewhat complicated, and confused. They live, for a start, in a complicated place, for beyond the Tesco’s car park the avenues curl into a maze of cul-de-sacs in which it is easy to get lost, and difficult to find anyone. When not indoors, people are in their cars, usually driving away. The only place showing any sign of human life besides Tesco is the Oval, Great Notley’s only pub.

A pair of builders are drinking outside in the beer garden. Both now in their forties, they grew up in east London but have started their own families here. “It’s ideal. Nice for the kids to play out.” Business has never been so good, they say. Work is sensational. But neither of them would vote for Tony Blair.

“No way. Never. You must be joking.” They have never voted Labour. But nor, it transpires, would they vote for anybody else.

“No. Everything’s ticking along nicely. We’ve been able to afford to go out and buy houses, not sit around in council houses.”

“Yeah, if you’re happy just ticking along the way it is, why vote? I wouldn’t bother. I’m pretty sure that if you don’t vote, your vote will automatically go to the party that’s in, doesn’t it?”

Invited to picture a hypothetical situation where that wasn’t the system, and the Tories stood a chance of getting in, the pair concede that they might possibly vote for Blair, but are keener on Gordon Brown. “He’s the one that’s managing the money, in’ ‘e? We’ve got to keep him there. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The Oval pub has been built to suggest a barn conversion, with rafters and beams exposed, but the timber work – like the rest of it – is brand new. Model Second World War Spitfires are suspended from the ceiling, Klee and Picasso prints adorn the walls, and 1980s pop is piped gently through the no-smoking air. The menu offers skate with garlic sauce, and rum and banana flambe, or, alternatively, a traditional Sunday roast.

A retired painter and decorator from Dagenham is perched awkwardly with his wife on the oversized leather sofas. He thinks they voted Labour last time, but can’t be absolutely certain. She thinks Blair is “up and down”, and “takes more notice of what other people think than himself”. Would she prefer Gordon Brown? She looks glum. “We haven’t got a Churchill, have we?”

As the day wears on, I hear most of the usual complaints about Blair, though seldom expressed with particular feeling. No consensus emerges on his role in the Iraq war, or for that matter on much else. Blair is too domineering; he’s a yes-man; he rushes into things; he’s too nervous; he’s only in it for himself. But despite sounding familiar, the complaints seem somewhat random, with no obvious reason to be made.

On a large square of grass called the village green, thirtysomething mums and dads are watching small boys in Man United and England strips play football. Like everyone I meet, they trace their roots back to the East End. “I’m a Hackney boy,” says George. “Proud of my roots, mate. But it’s lovely here, isn’t it? Lovely village. I bet it’s lovely for you to come out here, isn’t it? I bet you’ve never seen so many trees.” George runs a car dealership, and business is booming.

“We’ve got a brilliant hospital,” says Samantha. “And there’s another one that’s just been given money to get done up, too. The local primary school is lovely. Really lovely.” She is thrilled about the recently opened retail and leisure centre, and their house has more than doubled in value. So how will they vote next time?

“I don’t know.” Samantha frowns. “I really don’t know.”

“Is Screaming Lord Sutch about?” asks George.

Everyone loves living in Great Notley Garden Village. They are delighted with their lot. But they do not credit the Prime Minister with any of their fortune.

“We voted for him last time,” says Samantha. “He was a young guy coming in, he had loads of things he wanted to do. He wanted to change things, didn’t he? He just seemed like a young, fresh person. But nothing’s changed.”

It may be because they lack any personal grievance that so many of the people I meet resort to what are basically political writers’ objections to Blair, lifted from the media to justify the assumption of disappointment. But it’s confusing to them: “I don’t understand why he’s not putting his capabilities to good use,” says one dad.

“Tony Blair,” another chips in, “is a decent bloke. You can tell that by his family and all the rest of it. So really, it’s a shame.”

“He does try his best,” says another. “That’s why it’s a bit hard to understand.”

But what, then, of Gordon Brown?

George thinks he’s “quite a nice chap”. So does Samantha. “He’s put a lot of money into the NHS, hasn’t he?” Neither of them has ever even considered the idea of him as Prime Minister.

“The only thing we’ve seen Gordon Brown speak about is his budgets, and that’s it,” ponders an elderly woman. “So it’s hard to say. I can’t really see him as Prime Minister.” Nobody can. But then, nobody has seriously imagined anyone new in charge.

Blair has assumed the emotional quality of the weather: a constant about which one feels vaguely obliged to grumble, but also happy to, it being unlikely to make any difference. Eventually, however, people in Great Notley will have to turn their minds to an alternative occupant of No 10. You could say that they owe most of what matters to them to the Chancellor. Low interest rates have bought them their five-bedroomed houses, made the building trade buoyant, kept consumers buying cars. The children with their clear white skin and even features are dressed in Gap Kids. Teenagers in Mini Coopers collect party packs of beer from Tesco for the evening barbecue, wearing Burberry from the designer mall just along the A120.

A dad refereeing the football on the green believes that he is like everyone else; given a choice, he will always vote for the best-looking candidate. “Churchill wasn’t good-looking,” his father reminds him. “Yeah, but that was in the days when people understood about politics. Now they just look at someone and say, ‘I like him’, or ‘I don’t’. That’s what I do. Because the government doesn’t make any difference to your life, does it?”

Back in Tesco, Alan Jackman has thought more about the government than most in Great Notley. It’s a good life here, he says. An unbelievable standard of living. People should consider themselves lucky.

But the Chancellor for prime minister? “He gives me the impression that he is a man that is excellent in support. But he doesn’t give me the confidence. I look at him, and I don’t think his personality is dynamic enough to be our Prime Minister. I like to know that a steady-thinking kind of man like him is there. Just probably not as Prime Minister.”