Election focus: Worcester

‘Worcester woman’, traditionally a Tory voter, fell into Tony Blair’s electoral arms in 1997. Ever since then she’s slowly drifted back to the Conservatives – a reconversion which may now be close to completion.

By Alex Stevenson

This county town seat is pivotally placed. Its MP for the last 13 years, Michael Foster, is convinced who wins here will be forming the next government. “Worcester is a barometer of public opinion,” he says. Proportionally its make-up reflects that of the UK, in terms of ethnic minorities, housing and broader socio-economic characteristics. And proportionally, it forms a microcosm of British interests. Foster has spent the last 13 years dealing with its voters’ problems. “The issues are probably no different to what you would get if you asked anybody across the UK.” Health; education; police; immigration; and, of course, the economy, are all hot topics on the doorstep.

Like the rest of the country, the result of the general election campaign is finely balanced. The Tories are the favourites. Worcester is 59th on their target list, placing it halfway on the list of seats David Cameron needs to win if he is to gain an overall majority. But what was once a fairly solid lead in the polls has been eroded. “The events of the last week have turned things on their head,” Foster says. “It will be unpredictable.”

Robin Walker, Foster’s Conservative challenger, accepts this is a tight contest. He contrasts the response on the doorstep in 2010 with that seen nine years ago, when he campaigned here on behalf of another Tory PPC. Then public sector workers weren’t interested in the Conservative message.

“That’s changed now,” he says. “They understand we’re campaigning for fairer funding, reduce burden of bureaucracy. We’ve got the right policies to appeal to people whether they work in the private sector or the public sector. It’s something that makes me much more comfortable being a Conservative candidate.”

Robin Walker interview:

The last comment is somewhat surprising, for Walker is Tory through and through. The local Conservative Association headquarters contains a red and white poster showing a black and white photograph of a smartly-dressed young man. ‘Walker for Worcester’, it reads. That young man is Robin Walker’s father, Peter. The poster is from his 1961 by-election win. Walker senior held the seat until 1992.

Worcester is a royalist sort of place, whose town hall is adorned with glorious statues of Charles I and Charles II. With Walker II poised to follow Walker I, could the socialist interregnum be coming to an end?

“I don’t think this is about a family dynasty at the end of the day,” Walker says, smiling.

“I meet a lot of people in Worcester who have fond memories of my father and that’s a wonderful thing. But at the end of the day it’s about working hard for people and trying to become a good MP.”

They are, from his point of view, “wonderful footsteps to follow in”. But Foster is less impressed. “I’m against hereditary peerages – I’m even more against hereditary MPs,” he says forcefully.

Michael Foster interview

In a tight race it’s to be expected this pair are going to rub up against each other; in fact Foster’s jibe is only the tip of a rather acrimonious iceberg. Walker describes his rival as a “very personable and very charming man”, but there is little love lost between the two.

Their failure to see eye to eye on the clean campaign pledge – signed by Walker but not by Foster – sums up the problem. Walker is unimpressed by Foster’s reluctance to sign up. He claims many of Foster’s actions and statements would have broken the pledge if it had been signed, anyway. Foster dismisses the matter with a wave of his hand. “The so-called clean campaign pledge was a gimmick from day one.”

The Labour incumbent is on the defensive again over accusations from Walker that he has failed to serve the people of Worcester by taking on the job of government whip. “We need to show we can deliver, we can put in someone who’s going to be first and foremost a constituency MP and not just pursue a career at Westminster,” Walker explains. “I think some of Mike’s decisions in choosing to become a whip, when he couldn’t vote against the party line… people see as rather odd.” Again, Foster is dismissive. He says Walker’s comments show a “lack of understanding” – before going on the attack himself.

“I don’t use the word hypocrite very often,” he seethes, “but his Dad was in Thatcher’s Cabinet – a wet! I don’t think Robin Walker would voice concerns that his Dad didn’t serve the people of Worcester well.” And so the rows go on and on. The gripes are at their most spectacular on the personal level, of course, but they appear to be more a reflection of the intense competition seen in this seat than a personal dislike between the two.

Fuelling the even-handed nature of the contest are the Tory council and the national Labour government. They give the Tory and Labour candidates something to campaign against.

Foster, canvassing in what should be a solid Labour part of town, demonstrated the usefulness of this approach with a floating Lib Dem voter. The Labour incumbent was trying to persuade her to vote tactically when her main gripe came up. She was upset with local parking difficulties connected to the area’s high student population.

Foster gently explained it wasn’t anything to do with him, but the fault of the Tories on the city council. She seemed to be accepting his arguments – and indicated her determination to keep the Tories out. “She just needs a bit more pressure,” Foster said afterwards. It appeared to have been a very productive five minutes’ work.

Foster claimed another “huge victory” on CCTV cameras, which the local council had threatened to shut down. He helped gather 4,000 signatures from locals determined to keep them operating in the town centre, forcing the city council to back down. It’s irritating, he explained to the Lib Dem floating voter, having a Tory council. But it can also be quite useful.

Meanwhile Walker is making the most of the Labour government’s record in power. “Labour won this seat in 1997 with a lot of promises about the public services,” he says. “That’s what Worcester woman was interested in. She wanted to know about the services her children were going to get. She wanted to know about the services they were going to enjoy. What people have seen over time is they haven’t really lived up to those promises.”

Conservative campaigners say that, while their core vote has remained solid, it’s the Labour supporters which are expressing interest in Tory policies in a way that never really happened before. “We are finding our core vote is holding up, whereas Labour voters are expressing an interest in what we have to say,” Walker says.

That analysis seems to be borne out by the reaction on the doorstep. One woman Foster spoke to was a truly sad case. She had lost her job because of local council cuts; her partner was terminally ill; her elderly mother was struggling to pay for care; and her own health problems were making it harder for her to get a job. “I’m a bright girl, yet I feel that life has let me down,” she said sadly.

Foster urged her to get in touch with him quickly if he was re-elected, but it was clear from her demeanour that she was too fed up with Labour to back the government once more. In a seat where national issues exactly reflected the concerns of those on the doorstep, Foster breathed a weary sigh as the door closed. “That’s the microcosm,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s a bit frustrating, but what can you do?”

Walker is without doubt the favourite in a seat which, as his father’s political career shows, is more than ready to back the Conservatives. Like the wider campaign, though, this race is far from over; Worcester woman has not yet fully changed her mind.