Political Editor Graham Dines previews the looming battle for BraintreeIT'S the second most vulnerable seat in the country, sprawling across large swathes of mid Essex countryside from Gosfield to Hatfield Peveril, from Earls Colne to Rayne.
Political Editor Graham Dines previews the looming battle for Braintree
IT'S the second most vulnerable seat in the country, sprawling across large swathes of mid Essex countryside from Gosfield to Hatfield Peveril, from Earls Colne to Rayne.
Welcome to Braintree, the Essex constituency where Labour MP Alan Hurst "enjoys" a majority of just 358.
One of the great shocks of election day 1997 Tony Newton's defeat, Leader of the House of Commons and Braintree's Conservative MP since 1974. Boundary changes which put Tory voting rural villages into West Chelmsford were his undoing, his 13,388 majority transformed into a 1,451-vote margin for Mr Hurst.
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If 1997 was a surprise, 2001 was frankly unbelievable. Braintree was a dead cert to return to the Conservatives. Few takers would have been found for a bet that Labour would hold on.
But hold on Alan Hurst did, by the slimmest of slim margins. Only Dorset South has a Labour majority smaller than Braintree.
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As Mr Hurst has often said to me: "If the Tories can't defeat me, then they've no chance anywhere."
The Conservatives are fully aware of that. Last week, the undeclared election campaign kicked off when Michael Howard, celebrating his first anniversary as leader, visited John Bramston School in Spinks Lane, Witham, to talk to staff and students.
Today, Keith Taylor, the Principal Speaker of the Green Party, is in Witham looking at local input into proposals for a major railway and public transport improvement package.
The Greens over the weekend once again re-selected district and parish councillor James Abbott as its candidate. But for a seat which will be closely contested and the focus of national attention, the Liberal Democrats and UK Independence Party have been remarkably reluctant to decide which one of their own to throw into the cauldron.
Every vote in this constituency could make a difference. While the Lib Dems and minor party candidates have no chance of winning, they could seriously damage the chances of either Mr Hurst or his second time Tory opponent Brooks Newmark.
Braintree should have been an easy pick up for the Tories in 2001. But as elsewhere, the Conservatives failure here was spectacular, despite an energetic campaign by venture capitalist Mr Newmark, who lives in Bradfield and is standing again.
The "highlight" of that election was a disastrous visit by then Tory leader William Hague. After launching the party's initiative on immigration in Dover one Friday morning, the Tory circus turned up at the Constitutional Club in Braintree town centre that afternoon.
From the first floor balcony, Mr Hague bellowed out a speech, a rant on saving the pound, lowering taxation, and re-iterating the immigration theme, which for a constituency as tolerant and mainstream as Braintree was simply hopeless.
Any chance of the Tories winning disappeared overnight, as a rejuvenated Labour campaign seized the initiative to see Mr Hurst scrape home.
The final nail in Mr Newmark's coffin was the UK Independence Party, which in the shape of former Tory councillor Charlie Cole polled 748 votes – one of 10 seats in Britain where the UKIP vote was larger than the winning candidate's majority.
But if most of these voters were formerly Tory inclined, Labour has to worry about the Greens, whose active cell around Rivenhall and Silver End produced a vote of 1,241.
And then there's the Cannabis Alliance, which managed to outpoll UKIP. Where did it get its vote from and will it stand again?
The campaign of the two main parties will be masterminded from buildings which face other near Witham railway station. Labour is based in Collingwood Road, while the Tories are in their squat headquarters in The Avenue.
AROUND 70% of the electorate live in the commuting towns of Witham and Braintree itself. The constituency is able to boast seven railway stations, one of the highest ratios in England. The single track branch line to Braintree from Witham – at one time it ran onto to Great Dunmow and Bishop's Stortford and – sees an hourly service in each direction to and from London Liverpool Street while Witham, Kelvedon and Hatfield Peveril lie astride the East Anglia mainline.
Along with the A12 and A120 trunk roads and the A131, the railway is the lifeblood of Braintree constituency, which can boast the newest station on the Great Eastern tracks – Braintree Freeport, serving the ultra modern factory outlet discount shopping complex as well as thousands of new houses which have sprung up on the outskirts of the town.
Witham is Labour's main strength, a manufacturing town used by the former London County Council for decanting thousands of East Enders as part of the slum clearance programme.
Newland Street, the centre of the town, lies exactly on the path of the original Roman road from London to Colchester and served as a stopover for stagecoaches before the arrival of the railways.
The current town hall was once the George Coaching Inn and then functioned as the town's first bank in the 19th century. In Newland Street, novelist Dorothy L Sayers lived for nearly 30 years and she is commemorated in John Doubleday's bronze statue of her which stands outside the library next to her former home.
Braintree itself is quintessentially English, prosperous with new housing estates on the edge and smart town houses in the centre.
The town's multi-storey car park leads into George Yard, a shopping precinct built on the site of the factory founded by Francis Henry Crittall to manufacture metal windows.
The precinct has a quirky niche in the country's political history. It was opened on October 17 1990 by Environment Secretary Chris Patten – one of the last official duties undertaken by a Tory cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher's premiership. A month later, she had been knifed in the great Conservative Party coup.
Market Place may be unique in Britain – supermarket giants Tesco and Sainsbury face each other, separated by a square featuring two pubs.
Walk down to the station, passing the Town Hall, library, a Weatherspoons pub converted from the former Embassy cinema, the Engine Shed – an all chrome, Islington-style trendy drinking establishment with cataclysmic warnings "drugs, police informed," "over 21s only" and "smart dress code" – and the Jehovah's Witnesses meeting hall.
Opposite the station, Bradford and Bingley estate agents Taylor and Co has just sold a two bedroom end terrace home which had an asking price of £155,000.
Dean Ellis of Taylor and Co says three bedroom detached houses in the town can be bought between £180,000 and £240,000 depending on location, prices having risen on average 35% since the 2001 General Election.
"Braintree's rail links to London and the opening of the A120 dual carriageway to Stansted are making property in the town much sought after," he says with some satisfaction.
It is all this that combines to make Braintree a microcosm of English life, the heart of a constituency which should be naturally Tory but which has embraced New Labour and Tony Blair.
At the next General Election, widely assumed to be next Spring, Braintree will be a Labour-Conservative marginal.
The Tories gained control of the district council in last year's local elections, and last month grabbed Rayne from the Liberal Democrats in a by-election which Labour failed to contest.
The key questions hanging over the election in Braintree will be mirrored in 100 or so marginal seats throughout Britain.
Will anti-Iraq Labour voters switch to the Lib Dems and put the Tory in? Or will they decide that the only way to ensure public services such as schools and hospitals are well funded is to return a Labour MP?
Will those Tory voters, who hate the European Union, switch to UKIP if they are convinced the Conservatives have no chance of forming a Government? Will any of the legion of former Tory voters who jumped ship to New Labour return to their natural home or abstain?
Can the Lib Dems make any impact on the Tory vote?
Will abstention be the deciding factor on who becomes Braintree's next MP?
The EADT will be talking to a panel of Braintree voters in the run-up to the General Election on the issues that affect them most.
A win for Mr Newmark will not lead automatically to a Tory government. But if Labour holds Braintree, the Conservative Party may as well throw in the towel.
General Election 2001
A Hurst (Lab) 21,123; B Newmark (Con) 20,763; P Turner (LD) 5,664; J Abbott (Green) 1,241; B Nolan (Cannabis Alliance) 774; C Cole (UKIP) 748. Lab majority 358. No change. Turnout 64.21%. Electorate 78,362. Swing 0.9% Lab to Con.