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27 September 1999

Two Englands, but which has won?

Huntingdon is the safest Tory seat, Bootle the safest Labour one. Guess which is more satisfied with

By George Lucas

To the victors, the spoils. That ethic of conquest is a tradition as old as humankind, and nowhere more so than in domestic party politics. The most ardently felt emotions of all come not in the marginal seats so fought over by modern parties but in their deepest, most tribal heartlands, where – current electoral arrangements persisting – the faithful need not worry over local victory, but can instead plan, even dream, of their party changing the nation for the better.

There exist now significant grounds to debate the Blair Labour project, currently under attack from some national newspapers for restoring the Poor Laws of the Victorian workhouse. Few voters of any hue in 1997 could have anticipated such headlines. Labour enthusiasts would have collapsed in shock. Surely, more than two years on, the ultra-loyal should be savouring still the landslide spoils: even a short time into Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, despite economic recession, the Tory government had delivered for those in well-paid employment gargantuan reductions in income tax bills. Labour supporters in northern towns faced employment oblivion.

To test the effects of the Blair victory, it seemed natural to visit the safest Labour and safest Tory seats in the land, measured on proportions of those voting in 1997. The safest Tory seat, majority 31.8 per cent (18,140 votes), is John Major’s in Huntingdon, a rural slab stretching over green fields interspersed with genial pubs. Huntingdon’s town centre comprises a market square, a pedestrianised shopping area and nearby streets seemingly largely unruffled by modernity.

Church bells are often heard, and in earshot stands the George Hotel, boyhood home of Oliver Cromwell, an earlier national leader nurtured, it seems, in better circumstances than his successor from Worcester Park and Brixton.

On local prosperity the George’s manager, Michael Hinson, is unambiguous. The hotel is not only thronged with residents but also reaping the super-profitable icing of business conferences and training courses. When the suited participants repair to the bar, they stand on the fine green carpet, under old prints of Charles I, clutching business folders and chewing the cud of company politics, new contractors, upcoming deals.

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For such burghers, both Labour and Tony Blair are far, far away. Hinson says that the Labour government “hasn’t had an effect on Huntingdon at all”. The booming economy means that he is having trouble finding staff.

Several doors down, the Gatehouse Estates agency’s Huntingdon manager, Phillip Malley, a Tory supporter, says the property market is “the busiest” that he has seen it. As for Blair: “It might as well be the Conservatives still in power.”

Naturally, various problems persist. Rural crime remains. Huntingdon’s Oxmoor estate has its share of delinquency. Locally Labour has suffered reverses from its 1995 successes; one Conservative official says that while it is “hard to find anything big” on which voters oppose Blair, there have been “a lot of little things you don’t hear about”.

Most complaints are aimed at headaches reminiscent of Thatcherism’s late-1980s high tide.

Traffic levels are one bugbear. The A14 link to Cambridge is a well-chided black spot, since “a 15-mile run can take three hours if there’s an accident, one hour if not”. There is unease, echoing strongly the Nicholas Ridley era, at the perpetual building of yet more housing estates to cope with the demands of shoals of would-be residents.

A few miles south, Joe Pajak, 45, headteacher of the Ernulf Community School at St Neots, dislikes spin-doctoring and Labour’s excessive zeal in education policy. He worries about a “bidding culture” in education, where schools invest too much time in fund-raising campaigns which often fail or yield scant results, especially given that corporate donors are “getting tired” of being asked to buy computers for schools.

But, in the main, Huntingdon is, well, comfortable. Julian Makey, a local journalist who’s lived in the area for 44 years, says that “politics doesn’t come up very high on the agenda”. Every sign is that, good fortune be thanked, it doesn’t need to, although further nightmares on the A14 might raise the passions.

Few issues could seem more esoteric to Bootle on Merseyside, where Liverpool’s commuters were recently subjected to various severed pigs’ heads on spikes by the busy Derby Road. (Police suspect these might have been a macabre protest following clashes between police and football supporters after Liverpool lost to Manchester United.) Bootle, mentioned in the Domesday Book and, given its own depth of history, fully able to look Huntingdon in the face, is proportionately Blair’s safest seat with a 74.4 per cent margin of voters (28,421) separating Joe Benton, 65, from other candidates.

When I visited, Benton was about to take a holiday with his wife in a tent in the Lake District. His constituency is not only the safest in Britain but also one of the very poorest. On the streets locals report crowds of kids from around eight upwards clustering outside chippies to get bombed on 24-bottle sets of French beer bought from illegal importers for a couple of pounds; they then smash windows, swing on telephone wires, whatever – anything to pass the time. A lot of girls get pregnant, a lot of cars disappear, a lot of drugs are done. A few lucky addicts are treated by, among others, Mary Hughes of the BOSCO House Project on Merton Road, where staff train former addicts to find skilled work.

By no means all comment on Labour is adverse. Many welcome the minimum wage, of which John Rice, a newly elected Labour councillor, is proud, although he feels better policing of the law is needed against rogue employers. Brian Norbury, headteacher of the Grange Primary School, feels pressures on teachers are still too great, although two years of Labour policies have given him “more hope than anything else since I began teaching in Bootle 25 years ago”. Others, such as Sally Neale, 28, welcome the working families tax credit.

But a local Unison official, Martin Murphy, says that local opinion is mixed about the government’s record so far: the keenness for Blair’s premiership is not what it was. For Debbie Catharell, 44, a benefits campaigner, Labour’s welfare policy is “quite draconian: we’re going backwards, not forwards”, especially given harsher assessment regimes for disability payments.

A man in his fifties with a stick said he’d gained absolutely nothing from Blair. Although he’d voted Labour all his life, he would refuse to shake the Prime Minister’s hand were it offered.

He is not the only one. Outside one shopping precinct I met a thin man sheltering from the rain, his shaking body attempting to keep warm. Asked his opinion of Labour, he replied he had no trust in them at all. He hadn’t worked for 16 years. Back on heroin, his life was “day after day of having no money, you just have to go shoplifting”.

He shook even more. His GP had just told him it would be a three-year wait to be seen at Bootle’s Waterloo heroin clinic. As for politics, he’d been “a bit of a Labour activist” himself at school.

On Merseyside, where Labour and Liberal Democrats have little time for co-operation, some Labour loyalists worry that the party’s reliance on national campaigning could allow local Lib Dems to gain support. One Litherland ward resident, Mike O’Brien, 50, dislikes the party’s reticence in making personal contact with supporters. “We get a poster stuck through the door,” he says. The problem with television politics, he feels, is that it “becomes Brookside, EastEnders, Coronation Street“, light years removed from an era of pastoral activists working the front doors on every street. Several long-standing activists have left the party.

Many fear that very little of the billions that Labour is poised to spend before the election will come their way. Kevin Cluskey, 62, a councillor for 14 years and general election co-ordinator since 1987, who also reports that the local party’s average age recently nudged 50, wants the money spent on those who need it most but fears the worst when the bonanza comes: they won’t spend it on Bootle, or any of “the poor souls who are genuinely at the bottom of the heap – they don’t vote, do they?” he says.

So for now, like stranded refugees in a transit camp, they wait. And wait. For what, they are not sure. Val Naylor, a newly elected councillor and Blairite enthusiast, says after much reflection that she feels he is a “socialist at heart”. She hopes this will soon be evident.

There should remain great sympathy with Labour’s project. Without Blair almost no one would have felt victory was so complete. But the as yet unrevealed truth of Blair’s premiership is whether the action taken to improve the conditions of natural supporters has merely been to allay their suspicions, or else a set of slight starter-dishes for battle-weary ground troops who still want nothing other than improving conditions for the less well-off.

If it is the latter, then Blair runs potentially deadly risks. Times change. Markets crash, banks fail, whole continents erupt into war: factors wholly unconnected with Gordon Brown’s Treasury management could cause the nation’s financial health to change beyond recognition within the next two years.

Given this combination of potential danger and currently overflowing coffers, Bootle’s voters seem justified in wanting deliverance now.

Joe Benton sees some “hopefulness” but, concerning welfare, believes the situation is “still not good enough”. “It’s not tolerable, this, from any government,” he says. It is hard to disagree when those he represents wait in decrepit housing or for years on end on drug-treatment waiting lists.

The roughing-up of disability claimants could be eased, the kids who are listless and destructive each evening engaged, the drug victims retrained. And every school nationwide could be filled with the IT equipment that will allow any child from whatever background the chance of the highest success.

The devil is that, should proportional representation come, Blair will need Bootle’s votes as much as any others. He will need to give Bootle’s people reasons to support the party beyond the fact their grandparents did.

Should he fail, he will encounter lack of understanding from those who have been asked to wait for their loyalty to be rewarded while what remains of Tory Britain booms.

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