Battle of Hastings

7 minute read
J.F.O. McALLISTER / Hastings

It hasn’t been Tony Blair’s best year. Foot-and-mouth disease devastating the countryside and tourism. Record flooding. Trains crashing owing to a decrepit rail network. A tax protest that turned off the gasoline last summer and might do so again. Teachers complaining they’re overworked and health workers saying they’re underpaid. The endless saga of the Dome. And yet just a few weeks away from the June 7 election he just announced, Blair’s Labour Party is beating the Conservatives by 20 points in opinion polls.

Why? Because his opponent is William Hague. The Tories have still not recovered from the intellectual exhaustion of Thatcherism. Try as they might, they cannot persuade swing voters in prosperous times that resolutely centrist New Labour is dangerous. And Hague’s advisers squabble. Last week a MORI poll showed only 13% of voters think Hague would be the more capable Prime Minister; 52% back Blair.

If Hague’s moving van is to have any chance of pulling up to Downing St. next month, his majority will have to include the constituency of Hastings and Rye. A mix of aging seaside resorts and rolling farmland, it sent Tories to Parliament in every election since 1902 until Michael Foster, a local lawyer and Labour councilor, rode Blair’s coattails four years ago. His 34% vote was just enough to edge out the Tories, with the Liberal Democrats a close third. The slim margin makes him Labour’s 35th-most vulnerable M.P.

The Tory candidate is Mark Coote, an attractive, fresh-faced schoolteacher. As he zoomed around the territory in his “Keep the Pound” battlewagon last week, he thought victory was within reach. “There’s a large population still floating,” he says. “People who just wouldn’t talk to us in 1997 are now warm. And there are Labour supporters in significant proportion who definitely aren’t going to vote for us, but maybe aren’t going to vote at all.”

It’s just this combination — low turnout among those who have soured on Blair and rekindled energy among Tories who stayed home last time — on which Conservative strategists in London pin their dreams of an upset. They are whistling in the dark. But in the microclimate of Hastings, both parties’ private polls show a contest worth fighting. A Coote aide waves toward lists of voters who have been individually canvassed and says, “It isn’t a torrent, but there’s a steady stream of voters returning or turning to us because they’re disgruntled with Labour.” Coote says the main goal of his well-oiled campaign is to “identify those people, and keep on to them until election day.” For his part, the Liberal Democrat candidate Graem Peters, an office administrator, thinks the Tories’ national slump will send anti-Labour votes to him. “Foster has never once voted against Blair,” he says. “The people of Hastings and Rye understand they will be better served by me than a Labour apparatchik.”

What matters to Hastings voters? The same issues in play around the country: the economy, crime, better public services vs. lower taxes, the euro, the leadership qualities of Blair and Hague. Nationally, a key to the Tories’ weakness is that voters strongly prefer their stance to Labour’s only on the euro — they’re against it. But they don’t rate the issue as a top concern. In Hastings, it’s easy to see why other problems loom larger. Walk along the oceanfront, with its once-elegant hotels boarded up or carved into seedy bedsits for people on social benefit, and the devastation caused to Britain’s seaside resorts since the 1960s by cheap foreign holidays is clear. Hastings rates as the 27th-most deprived of England’s 354 local authorities. Drugs, crime, single moms, poor health — all the sad indicators of poverty are rife. Some 20,000 pensioners, many living on state benefit alone, add another layer to the heavy burden of services the government must provide. Other towns and villages in the constituency fare better, but it was on Hastings’ urban core that Foster built his winning coalition. “This town always should have been Labour,” he says.

Intense and hardworking, he has not counted on it remaining so. “We’ve been in campaign mode since the first of May 1997,” he declares, a chip off the Blair block. And like Blair, his best weapon is an improving economy. Tracking the national boom that has seen unemployment drop to under 1 million and interest rates at their lowest level since the 1960s, Hastings’ unemployment has virtually halved, to 5%, since 1997. Foster helped lobby for regeneration funds from London and Brussels (take that, Euro-skeptics), which should bring an extra $28 million by 2007. House prices are rising as Londoners discover bargain vacation homes only 100 km away. Michael Beard, group editor of the Hastings Observer, says the paper is getting 4,500 hits a month on its real estate website, up from 2,000 at the beginning of the year. Two weeks ago the huge pier on the Hastings seafront, for decades a derelict eyesore, opened after a refit that employed many local workers. A private developer was responsible, but it symbolizes a renaissance that can only help an incumbent.

Not surprisingly, Foster makes “jobs first” his main campaign pledge. But he doubts he’ll get much credit for recent progress. “People recognize improvements, but they don’t think the government is responsible.” And even Blair admits that on transport, education and the health service, few reforms have yet produced eye-catching results. Still, based largely on good economic stewardship and Hague’s poor standing, even disappointed Hastings voters seem willing to give Labour another chance. Blair’s austere campaign slogan — “The Work Goes On” — is an odd tribute to those minimalist expectations.

To counter Labour’s lead, Tories nationally are pressing some familiar hot buttons: violent crime — on which Labour is vulnerable because until a small rise this year, police numbers have dropped since 1997 — and an increase in asylum seekers. In Hastings, these seem more like lukewarm buttons, but Coote is going after 2,500 votes that in 1997 went to the mainly right-wing, anti-Europe Referendum Party. Harry Hilder, a former shepherd, observes a morning ritual of asylum seekers being picked up in the local park for construction work, at $7 a day. “If they weren’t there that job would be mine,” he fumes. But the number of asylum seekers living in Hastings has halved in the last two years to about 400, and there’s not much buzz in the issue. On police, Foster quickly points to a letter from a local official thanking him for help in obtaining an extra $1.4 million to pay for 30 more officers. Luckily for him, another local sore point — the construction of a bypass road through unspoiled territory, which all three candidates back — has been postponed by the government. A former Labour activist, Gillian Bargery, then chose not to run on an anti-bypass ticket that probably would have sucked several thousand votes, mostly from Foster. She is disillusioned by the government’s “Orwellian” prevarications on the bypass and will stay home on June 7.

The couch-potato factor is the biggest worry for all the candidates. Their answer is not inspiration but perspiration — organizing to get out the vote. “Even now,” says Cootes, “many voters are reluctant to admit they’re Conservative.” Foster detects a similar lack of commitment. “It’s in our British nature to be pessimistic and grumble about issues. But I’m sure voters feel better now than they did four years ago.” Anthony Robinson, 72, a retired printer and Labour voter, puts it slightly differently. “I may not feel better with Labour. But I don’t feel worse.” That limp endorsement is likely to be the foundation of Tony Blair’s second term.

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