A Labour stronghold weakens in UK

Like most people in Sunderland, Lee Martin was a staunch follower of the Left. Today, he is a Tory with his eyes on a seat in parliament.

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Sunderland, UK // In the dying months of Britain's last Conservative government, the question was not whether Tony Blair's Labour would gain power but how dramatic the victory would be. Caught up in the national mood, Lee Martin, a student in the predominantly working-class northern city of Sunderland, voted Labour, the main party of the Left, as Mr Blair duly romped to power with a hefty majority of 179. Twelve years later, Mr Martin is not only older but - he feels sure - a lot wiser; he wants to enter parliament himself, but as a Conservative, the mainstream party of the Right. When the beleaguered Gordon Brown, currently looking as unelectable as John Major did in that 1997 general election, announces the polling date, which many expect to be in April of next year, Mr Martin will attempt to become Sunderland's first Conservative MP in more than four decades. He has been chosen to fight the new seat of Sunderland Central, a constituency that includes relatively prosperous coastal pockets but embraces the city centre, row after row of terraced housing and the sites of long-closed coal mines and shipyards. In normal electoral conditions, a Conservative win would be out of the question. But amid economic gloom, high unemployment and public discontent with almost every aspect of government policy - from military involvement in Afghanistan to income tax - Mr Brown's unpopularity has reached such a level that analysts put the Conservatives within an ace of pulling off a sensational result. For that to happen, Mr Martin has to persuade people who have never voted for the Tories, as Conservatives are more commonly known, to abandon Labour just as he did midway through the Blair years in Downing Street. But he is confident it can be done. Under David Cameron, he believes, the Tories have shed the reputation for doctrinaire ruthlessness created in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was demonised by opponents as a champion of individual and corporate greed and the enemy of ordinary men and women. "There are similarities between now and 1997," concedes Mr Martin, 34, a marketing consultant and leader of Sunderland city council's Tory opposition. "But there is not quite the hatred of Labour that there was of the Conservatives in the late 1990s. Back then, like everyone else, I was unimpressed by Major. The Tories had been in office far too long and had run out steam. We needed change and Blair seemed fresh, the right man to bring it. "But I think people have decided they are ready for change again and the more they see of David Cameron, the more they like him." This feeling is mutual. On a visit to the region, Mr Cameron showered praise on the young candidate for doing "a brilliant job in showing how Conservatives can win in the north". Of his political conversion, Mr Martin says: "I had previously been involved with young Conservatives and quickly came to the conclusion that for all the goodwill Labour had, and the best economic conditions they could have hoped for, they weren't delivering." The decline of government fortunes has been extraordinary. From being the envy of neighbouring countries as the economy prospered in the early part of the New Labour project, Britain is now seen as one of the sick men of Europe, hit harder than most by recession and embedded in contentious international conflicts. In recent elections, Labour suffered historic losses, blamed in part on the scandal over MPs' expenses even though this had also exposed Conservative politicians. The party trailed behind both the Tories and the small United Kingdom Independence Party in the European parliamentary elections and was left without control of a single county council in local government polling. The latest survey of public opinion by the Electoral Calculus website predicts a general election majority of 72 for Mr Cameron. So is Labour's malaise beyond immediate cure? "The short answer is yes," says Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University north-east of London and one of Britain's most experienced electoral analysts. "Their predicament is irretrievable. They are held in contempt, though sometimes benign contempt, because they are seen as chaotic and incompetent, unable to get anything right. The one thing people thought they could get right - the economy - has also gone wrong." Prof King is not convinced the government's foreign policy performance will add greatly to Gordon Brown's woes "except that Labour is deeply associated with Britain's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter, in particular, is not going well and whether or not they think the operation is a good idea in general, most people undoubtedly believe we have inadequate troop numbers and insufficient equipment." He does not doubt that seats in Labour strongholds are at risk, though he is not sure the Tories' appeal to voters is strong enough to translate into a landslide. "I would be surprised by neither an overall 20-seat majority nor one of 150. The striking difference between now and 1997 is that Blair had an obvious strategy. David Cameron's approach is more like, 'Look, we may not be wonderful, we aren't promising a new Britain, but at least we'll do things better'." In his constituency offices behind Sunderland's civic centre, Chris Mullin reflects on 23 years in parliament that will come to an end when he stands down at the election. His seat, Sunderland South, disappears as part of the shake-up of the city's seats though many feel that, had he not decided to leave the House of Commons, he would have presented a stiffer challenge to Mr Martin than Labour's Sunderland Central candidate, Julie Elliott, a trade union official. "If you go back to the early 1990s, things were pretty desperate," he says. "Unemployment in some areas of the city was 40 to 50 per cent, a generation was growing up without prospect of work, crime levels were soaring and it took two years to get a hip operation. All that has changed. I don't put it all down to Labour but we had something to do with it and I dread to think of us going back to what it was like under the Conservatives." Mr Mullin, who hopes to publish sequels to his successful diaries, A View From the Foothills, on leaving active politics, acknowledges public "fatigue" with Labour after three general election wins, but insists the party can recover, adding that "modest signs" of economic revival give him hope. At the other end of the country, in his south coast constituency of Dorset South, Jim Knight, the minister of employment, is outwardly even more upbeat about Mr Brown's chances of re-election. "People will decide whether they want to take the risk on someone new running the country with very inexperienced ministers or stick with an experienced team that is starting to lead the country out of recession," Mr Knight says. On a damp, blustery August afternoon, however, casual conversations with traditional Labour voters in Sunderland yield few signs of encouragement for the government. "We've lost faith," says one mother, out with her children on the riverside path beneath the imposing Wearmouth Bridge. "No one could be worse than what we have," adds another woman. In the Bridges shopping centre, Aimee Madden and her mother, Angela, 51, agree. "I've just spent six months out of work before finally finding a job," says Aimee, 23. "I wouldn't have much good to say about Brown. Lots of my friends from school are in the forces, putting their lives at risk in fights we shouldn't be involved in." She and her mother would consider voting Tory for the first time "if they looked like doing something for ordinary people". Chris Mullin loyally insists that Sunderland Central will turn Tory only if the election inflicts "meltdown" on his party. It may bring only small comfort to Gordon Brown, as he works out how to avoid that catastrophe, that once the polling stations close, he will know his party's fate very quickly. Electoral officials are determined to maintain the city's recent record for speedily completed counts, making the constituency the UK's first to declare its result. crandall@thenational.ae