British Candidates Search Bellwether District For Votes

Showdown Thursday May Return Control Of Parliament To Labor

April 28, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BASILDON, England -- This is hard-charging, hand-shaking, dawn-to-midnight campaigning -- British style.

Here's Conservative Party candidate John Baron knocking on doors, shoving campaign leaflets into mailboxes and scaring every dog in the neighborhood in a quest to talk with voters before Thursday's British general election.

And here's Labor's Angela Smith on a lunchtime blitz through The Moon On The Square Pub. It takes her 30 minutes to walk 50 feet, as dozens of well-wishers shake her hand, shout encouragement and even plant kisses on her freckled face.

Baron and Smith are bidding to reach Parliament, block by block and house by house. They are vying for one of Britain's symbolic election prizes -- Basildon, the blue-collar suburban district of 100,000 people that lies 25 miles east of London.

In 1992, Basildon became a bellwether district. When the Tories won here, they virtually clinched their fourth consecutive election victory.

Now, Labor is out to claim the seat, and take control of the national government, for the first time in 18 years. In Britain, political power is wielded by the party that claims a majority in the 659-member House of Commons.

Most of the focus in this campaign is on the two men vying to lead Britain, Prime Minister John Major and Labor Party leader Tony Blair. But the outcome will be decided seat by seat in places like Basildon. In Basildon, Labor is leading by a 2-to-1 margin. Newspaper polls released yesterday show Labor could be heading for a historic landslide nationally.

The politicians take nothing for granted. Basildon is so competitive that its current member of Parliament, Conservative David Amess -- who won by 1,480 votes in 1992 -- is running in a safer Tory district.

That leaves Baron and Smith battling for every vote in a race in which government regulations limit them to spending less than $14,000 each. To reach the voters, they rely on shoe leather, pamphlets and volunteers.

It can be lonely on Basildon's campaign trail. Baron keeps a smile on his face even though he is waved off door stoops by a couple of bleary-eyed guys in bathrobes and told point-blank by one woman holding a baby that she'll be voting Labor this year, thank you very much.

And Smith visits one school, two photo opportunities, three neighborhoods and four pubs.

"The polls said we were going to lose the last time," says Baron, a 37-year-old former Army officer turned investment adviser. "We think we're running neck and neck."

Smith, 38, a member of the local county council, says: "The mood is that we have to win. There is no euphoria, yet. People are too scared of losing again."

Basildon is England beyond the tourist trail, a drab brick and concrete "New Town" built after World War II and populated by transplants from London's working-class East End. For decades, it was a Labor stronghold -- until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. Thatcher's brand of tough-minded Conservatism appealed to hard-working, independent people.

But in voting Tory, Basildon was ridiculed by the national media elite. Wedged in the county of Essex, Basildon became the stereotypical home of so-called Essex man and Essex woman, vulgarians who wore black leather and gold chains, vacationed at tacky Spanish resorts and got their news from the low-brow tabloid, the Sun of London.

"I can't stand it when people poke fun at Basildon," Smith says. "It makes me angry. I've lived here since I was 9. I know what's going on. For a lot of families, Basildon was a dream come true. When we came to Basildon, we got a home with a bathroom in the house, instead of down the hall or outside. And there was a new school across the road."

Smith admits that Thatcher connected with Basildon.

"People looked to the future," she says. "They had aspirations. It seemed to people that's what Margaret Thatcher had to offer. Basildon became the town of the Tory myth. I think it's the town the Tories betrayed."

Baron disagrees. He maintains that the Conservatives have been good for Basildon.

"We're connecting on the issues," he says. "Basildon is a town that is very keen and interested in the important issues."

Or is it?

Britons appear to be turned off to the national campaign, which has run for an uncommonly long six weeks and included negative television ads and name-calling. Since the campaign began, the number of people watching the nation's top nightly news program has dropped by half.

In Basildon, they just want the whole thing finished.

"I vote Conservative," says Annette Coe, who is sipping coffee with her friends in the city's main shopping mall. "I remember what it was like when Labor was in. There was all this nonsense with strikes. Labor keeps a working man a working man. They don't give anyone a chance to get higher. The Conservatives do."

Jill Moorcraft usually votes for the Tories. But this year she will vote Labor. She says it's time for a change. And she says the Tories have lost touch with the people. While candidates like Baron claim that Britain's relationship with the 15-member European Union is the main issue, a voter like Moorcraft disagrees. "I'd have thought the issues were closer to home," she says. "Health. Education. Jobs. They're the things ordinary people think about."

Teresa Newman agrees. The problem, she says, is the politicians are turning off the voters.

"Anytime you turn on the television, there's the election," she says. "People who knew who they were going to vote for, now don't. We're really tired of this."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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