There are quite a few Labour voters in South Dorset: at the last count 19,027, to be precise. This was just enough to squeak the Labour MP, Jim Knight, into his seat in 2001. But South Dorset is Labour’s most marginal constituency, with a majority of just 153 votes, and this time around, the contest will be a two-horse race between Knight and the Tory candidate, Ed Matts.
South Dorset is a diverse area. Much of the constituency is rural and it covers the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, but also includes the commercial port at Portland and the substantial seaside resort of Weymouth. It was to Weymouth that I went at the weekend to take the pulse of South Dorset’s Labour voters. With 19,027 of them floating around, how difficult could that be? I stationed myself first of all on the charming seafront, with its wide, sandy beach and tall, narrow, terraced hotels with cast-iron balconies and cream paintwork. It was a beautiful day and there were many people out enjoying the sunshine. But the Labour vote was reluctant to declare itself.
“My vote is between me and the ballot box,” snapped one smartly dressed woman, primly. “I’m not voting at all this time round,” said a tired-looking younger woman with a pushchair. “I can’t be bothered.” A group of youths hanging about on the promenade gave a ragged yell of “Up the workers!” and headed off, snickering loudly.
I decided to look for a grittier location. Around the seafront, Weymouth remains an archetypal south coast seaside town, with narrow streets and an atmospheric old harbour: the perfect place for bucket-and-spade holidays. It has none of the bolted-on glitz of Bournemouth, a few miles down the coast, though developments are springing up and a whacking great Asda now provides a stylish backdrop to the marina. Away from the pretty coast, however, there are some distinctly less picturesque districts.
I fetched up in the Littlemoor shopping parade, on the north-ern edge of town. The centre boasts a branch of Somerfield, a fruiterer’s, an ironmonger’s, a small post office, a chip shop, the Littlemoor Health Centre and the unisex Elegance Hair Studio – but no Labour voters who will stand up and be counted.
“I will definitely not be voting Labour. I habitually vote against the party in power,” said a man attempting to wedge a bundle of garden canes into his car.
“I don’t think I want to tell you, thank you,” said another man with a self-important smile and an air of mystery, jingling his change in a little drawstring leather purse.
“I haven’t thought about it yet,” said a polite woman in a tracksuit who was posting a letter.
“I don’t take any notice of any of it,” said a young chap smoking a fag outside the hair salon.
Finally, on the verge of giving up, I happened on Nicky Hope and James Johnston, both 39, walking across the car park. Nicky had voted for Labour in the past, but wasn’t planning to do so again. “They’ve had enough chances.” Her sticking point was the war.
But, eureka! James was a staunch supporter: “I’ll be voting Labour. I don’t want the Tories in.” He’s not impressed with the Conservatives, and feels that Labour is still sort-ing out an inherited mess. “Tory and Labour have always been cat and dog. I’ve always voted Labour. They are fair. They’ve done more for hospitals and education than anybody else.”
Clearly, one out of 19,027 is not a great score, but I had a fall-back position: Jim Knight’s office had helpfully put me in touch with some committed supporters. Simon and Tammie Bowkett’s house is a short way from the Littlemoor centre, on the edges of a sprawling modern development. The couple have three children – Summer, five, three-year-old Sennen and 13-month-old Mabel – and I interrupted a game of Monopoly when I turned up. Simon, 35, a Labour councillor elected last June, was not altogether surprised by my lack of success. “It’s not a very political area,” he said. “All the parties struggle round here.”
Simon, who works as area manager for an addictions service, says that Dorset is by no means a rural idyll. “If you exclude Bournemouth and Poole, Weymouth and Portland have four of the five most deprived wards in Dorset. The average wage is below the national figure.” He feels that one of the most important issues locally should be the desperate lack of affordable housing. “The emphasis on immigration drives me nuts. Round here, what immigrants? There are hardly any!”
Simon believes that many voters are genuinely in two minds. “They want to give Tony Blair a slap but they don’t want to see the Tories get in. Yet, faced with a stark choice, one thing that is true almost without exception is that people like and respect Jim Knight.”
Tammie, 32, is secretary of the local parents’ forum of Sure Start, one of Labour’s acknowledged successes. “It’s a lifeline to a lot of women and I want to see it continue. I believe in what it does. With child benefit and tax credits, there appears to be more money to help those with children.”
Driving down through town, I could not see any posters that mentioned Ed Matts by name, even though, just a few hundred yards further north in Letwin country (here be dragons), the Conservative placards proudly trumpet their candidate. The unfortunate Matts has probably done more to promote Knight than any local Labour activist. His latest faux pas was to publish a picture featuring himself alongside Sarah Ayton, the local golden girl and Olympic sailing medallist. Unfortunately, she intends to vote Labour, and was not best pleased. “I’m actually backing Jim Knight,” she told the local Echo newspaper.
Chris and Juliette Minto live in a smart modern house just up from the marina. They, too, have three small children, Eve, five, Ruaridh, two and Hamish, who is just four months old.
“If anything gets the Tories in, it will be apathy from Labour voters,” said Juliette, 36, formerly an English teacher but now a “stay-at-home mum”. “People have short memories. They forget what it was like under the Tories. We grew up with high unemployment, privatisation, yuppies, boom and bust, one-upmanship, that ‘I’m all right, Jack’ sense.”
“The Tories haven’t moved on,” reckoned Chris, 34, a sales manager with a PhD. “They’ve got no sort of mandate. On the whole Labour has done a good job. The economy is a shining example. The war has been the weakest point, but it has brought us closer to the US and given us more influence over the Bush administration.”
“The Conservatives are appealing to people’s baser instincts, greed and fear,” Juliette said. “Labour promised to lift children out of poverty and now we have Working Tax Credits, Sure Start, reduced class sizes – measures that genuinely make people’s lives better. I don’t think people will find they are able to vote Conservative when they’re alone at the ballot box with that piece of paper in front of them. I just don’t believe they will be able to do it.”