'It's a case of choosing least worst option'
Labour may be heading for an electoral bloodbath, but on Day Two of the Marginal Mystery Tour, Matt Chorley discovers that in their Westcountry bolt holes there is little enthusiasm for anyone
SINCE the end of the Second World War, Exeter has been a Tory seat for all but 16 years.
Yet since being swept in by Tony Blair's New Labour landslide in 1997, Ben Bradshaw has turned the city into a near-safe seat, an isolated red island in a sea of Tory blue and Liberal Democrat gold.
For months Labour high command was confident Mr Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary and favoured media performer, would hold his seat. Then something changed. Tory sources named him among a list of targets in a so-called decapitation strategy.
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Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman let it be known that when the election campaign is in full swing, ministers should be touring the country shaking hands, kissing babies and delivering soundbites to local media.
But Mr Bradshaw realises he must be in Exeter, ensuring his 8,500 majority does not slip away. "Harriet has been put back in her box," says a Labour aide. Ben is going nowhere.
It takes an 8.6 per cent swing to the Tories for their candidate Hannah Foster to win. While not impossible, it remains a big ask and Exeter is number 167 on the Conservative target list.
The Tories are spending big money, billboards are springing up across the city, glossy leaflets are clogging letterboxes.
All the main parties are targeting the "family vote", typified by the excruciating attempts to engage with the popular MumsNet website, which included Gordon Brown's inability to name his favourite biscuit.
Pushing a buggy though Exeter city centre yesterday morning, young mother Victoria Wallis admitted to spoiling her ballot paper in recent elections.
But having children has made her focus on the issues. She signed a successful online petition against Labour plans to withdraw childcare vouchers which would have forced up her monthly bills. Missing any loyalty to one party, she believes issues are more important.
"I will probably pay more attention to what they are saying now that I have got kids," she said. "It is pretty clear who David Cameron is targeting – mums."
The Labour leader's attempts to engage with mothers have proved less successful.
"I think the reason Gordon Brown is struggling so much is he reminds people of Nixon.
I feel quite disillusioned with the whole process."
Voters across Exeter report being "snowed under" with leaflets from Labour and Tories. Smaller parties, including the Lib-Dems, will hold their limited spending power until closer to polling day. Its impact is unclear. Time and again, shoppers, office workers, retired people, told me there is "no-one to vote for".
"I am not entirely convinced I would trust any of them. It's a case of choosing the least worst option," said one father-of-two.
Few associated Mr Bradshaw with being the local MP, name recognition coming from his place at the Cabinet table.
Party officials say that for this reason they have turned their attention away from the city centre to the outlying suburbs, including St Thomas's and Heathertree, where the response is more favourable. If Mr Bradshaw is ousted, he will be paying the price for disillusionment with the Labour government rather than local failings. "I think there will be a change this time," said Di Watts, from Exeter, who believes there is little to divide the parties. "If you put them in a bag and shook it up, they all come out the same."
Tory voter Syd Savvas, strolling past the Cathedral, is unsure who to back. He believes Gordon Brown has "inherited a bad situation" and is "trying to do a good job and showing emotion under pressure".
Labour strategists in Exeter are this week poring over the returns from a voters' survey. They are particularly buoyed by data that two-thirds of respondents are more likely to back an anti-hunting candidate.
News emerged yesterday of a direct attempt by hundreds of hunt supporters to swing into action in key marginal seats.
Mr Bradshaw is convinced that in an area like Exeter, this tactic will backfire, though he may underestimate the sheer numbers of boots pounding the streets the pro-hunt lobby could muster.
A billboard on a main road leading out of the centre reads: "5,000 extra people settle in here every week. Say no to immigration." This UK Independence Party message is stark, and strikes the sort of tone the Tories pursued at the last two elections, leading to a hammering at the ballot box.
But in both Exeter and Plymouth, the issue is high on the agenda. Warming my cold bones by the open fire in The Dolphin pub, on Plymouth's Barbican, the issues of immigration and the European Union are raised time and again. "I walked the streets this morning, these people talking… none of it was English. It is atrocious."
Another local voiced anger at Labour's open door policy: "Bringing every Tom, Dick and Harry into the country… all this human rights rubbish. They are scared stiff of the European Union."
Trust in politics is at an all time low. From the absence of a promised referendum on the EU's Lisbon Treaty, to expenses, broken manifesto pledges and lobbying scandals.
Plymouth has benefited from major investment under Labour, as part of its drive to tackle deprivation.
However, cuts to the naval base and dockyard has caused uncertainty in families across both the new Plymouth Moorview seat and neighbouring Plymouth Sutton and Devonport.
The latter – defended by one-time "Blair Babe" Linda Gilroy – is 105 on the Tory target list and on paper is a must-win if Mr Cameron is to make it into Number 10.
As the rain made the cobbles precariously slippery, few people on the streets wanted to stop and talk politics yesterday. Those that did only offered "the sooner they're out the better" with a shrug, before scurrying into a doorway for shelter.
The businesses behind those shop fronts are struggling. Firms are particular angry at huge rises in business rates. One pub landlord has seen his bill rise from £60,000 to £100,000.
Tony Stanton, owner of the Barbican Pasty Shop, will not vote. "Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dems. They are all tarred with the same brush. Why are we in a recession? The banks but they're not being penalised. Who runs this country, the banks or the government?" Trade has remained steady during the downturn – "everyone's got to eat" – but others have struggled.
Karen Bartholomew, runs The Barbican Shell Shop, selling a mixture of touristy knick-knacks, sweets and ornaments. "I don't trust any of them anymore. I normally vote Conservative, but now I'm not sure.
"The more you try to achieve a nicer house or better yourself, the more they come down on you.
"We have gone through a really bad time and thinking have we got enough money to pay the mortgage this month? I hate Gordon Brown. I absolutely hate the man. Cameron, I cannot make him out. Has he ever had a proper job? Everyone you talk to are so disillusioned now."
Cath, who works in FH Jacka bakery, always votes but can understand those who won't. "What's really upset people is all this about expenses."
While she has supported Labour since being helped back to work 12 years ago, she is unhappy with the number of people on the dole. "What bugs me is there's a lot of people that could be working that aren't."
Not once so far on this tour have I come across anyone who is enthusiastic about any party. Anger at Labour occasionally turns to sympathy for Mr Brown. There is no love for Mr Cameron either. The main parties must stop fighting each for a moment and realise their biggest opponent is apathy on a scale unimaginable 60 years ago.
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