The last push in Harwich

HARWICH on a bright Tuesday morning. Less than 48 hours to go and all six candidates in this bell-wether marginal are desperately seeking out last minute votesIf members of the Cabinet had never heard of Harwich, Clacton, Jaywick and Frinton before this election was called, they certainly have now.

By Graham Dines

HARWICH on a bright Tuesday morning. Less than 48 hours to go and all six candidates in this bell-wether marginal are desperately seeking out last minute votes

If members of the Cabinet had never heard of Harwich, Clacton, Jaywick and Frinton before this election was called, they certainly have now.

It's a sign of Labour's worry over the result that Tony Blair, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Foreign, Home, Health and Culture Secretaries have all pitched up to help Ivan Henderson hang on to what for decades before 1997 was a safe haven for the Conservatives.

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Even on the last full day of campaigning, Labour is sending in Chancellor Gordon Brown to Clacton for one last appeal to voters not to stay at home or - horror of horrors - vote Liberal Democrat which would "let the Tories in by the back door."

Contrast this activity with neighbouring Braintree, Labour's second most marginal seat in Britain, where Alan Hurst seems almost to have been deserted. True, John Prescott dropped in on the way back from Harwich, but Labour's campaign in a seat where the majority is just 358 has been left by Labour's high command to carry on in peace and quiet.

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I tracked down Ivan Henderson in Miller's Barn Road - which one Labour canvasser remarked rather unkindly was "the posh end of Jaywick." A team of 10 was hoofing its way down this street of genteel housing, gladhanding all in sight and offering voters the opportunity to speak to Mr Henderson, defending a majority of 2,596.

The Tories' constituency chairman Denzil Watson drives by, receiving Churchillian salutes from the Labour troops. Ivan Henderson is smiling, but looks tense, conceding that this election "is harder than both 1997 and 2001."

But he's found one family who voted Conservative last time who've now switched to him en masse while Labour posters are taken by residents as a sign of their support for someone acknowledged as having been a hard-working, good constituency Member of Parliament.

There is concern among Labour officials. And it centres on what they believe is a collapse in support for the UK Independence Party, which last time saved its deposit and whose forerunner, the Referendum Party polled 9% of the vote in 1997.

"Where are the UKIP posters?" they ask. I track one down to Great Holland, on my way to find Tory candidate Douglas Carswell. His face is everywhere on posters firmly planted on sea facing homes along Holland-on-Sea's splendid promenade, a sign that the Conservative campaign - which bombed completely in 2001 - is at least well organised and properly financed.

The campaigning style for Mr Carswell couldn't be more different than Mr Henderson's. Looking totally relaxed and, Tony Blair-like, not wearing a jacket, I found him bounding up steep paths on the sprawling private estate surrounding the Triangle shopping centre classified as "outside the gates" in Frinton.

"Hello, I'm Douglas - pleased to meet you," is the standard folksy Carswell patter on the doorstep. And it seemed yesterday, many people in both Rochford Way and Grange Close were happy that he had taken the time to seek their vote.

One householder even demanded he cross the road so she could meet the candidate she was determined to support on polling day.

"Some times you come across home after home which are solidly blue. On other occasions, Tory households in the same area are few and far between and you think to yourself that you're going to lose your deposit," muses Mr Carswell.

Conservative optimism has grown as the campaign has gone on, as they see little sign of UKIP. The Tories claim to have 170 volunteers on the streets, working for the cause, nearly twice as many as four years ago.

Mr Carswell adds: "It shows how panic stricken Labour is to send in all these Cabinet ministers. If the Labour campaign wasn't in trouble, they would not be here."

Has UKIP disappeared off the face of the earth? "Don't you believe it" says Euro MP Jeffrey Titford, who was out and about in Little Clacton and Great Clacton as he fights Harwich for the second time.

He admits to being "exhausted" but adds the reception he's getting has "not been too bad."

Mr Titford says: "We've put up a good show, but of course I would have liked the finances of the other two parties. Labour's had to put out its big guns because it is worried at the impact we are making."

Will he garner the 2,500 votes necessary to save his deposit if the turnout is 62%, the same as 2001?

"I damn well hope so - of course I will, we'll get far more this time," he tries to reassure me.

But it's the strength of the Liberal Democrat campaign, coupled with the intervention of John Tipple for the anti-Iraq war party Respect, which has really rocked Labour. Four years ago, the Lib Dems polled just over 8%, one of the party's poorest showing in the whole of Britain.

This time, there's an energy about the Lib Dems which can only mean a surge in its support. "We're picking up Labour and Tories converts, and amazingly even people in Frinton who last time backed UKIP," says candidate Keith Tully.

"The reception I got in Connaught Avenue in Frinton was amazing. There were Ted Heath-type Tories who hate what Michael Howard stands for, while Labour voters want to give a bloody nose to Tony Blair because of the Iraq war."

Mr Tully, who was campaigning in Clacton town centre, added: "My vote is going to surprise the other two big parties and the result is totally unpredictable."

That's probably the best prediction anyone can make. Whoever wins is likely to have a majority of a few hundred - if UKIP's vote in Harwich falls to the British average last time of around 1.5%, then it could be enough for the Tories to take the seat, especially if the Lib Dems poll well and Respect takes support from traditional Labour backers

Respect's John Tipple has no qualms at the possibility of a Labour defeat. "If I poll 500 votes and the Tory wins by 450, I'd be absolutely delighted. Labour's campaign is like Basil Fawlty - `don't mention the war.'"

But let's leave the last word to Clacton resident Christopher Humphrey, the candidate who has no description on the ballot paper.

He raised £3,000 to fight the seat, spent £500 on his deposit, and another £2,150 on his literature.

"I've given £250 to help the soup run for the homeless and £100 to Dawson House for people with mental and learning difficulties," says Mr Humphrey. "If I save my deposit, I'll divide it between the two charities."

If only all politicians were so altruistic . . .

HARWICH candidates: Douglas Carswell (Conservative), Ivan Henderson (Labour), Christopher Humphrey (no party indicated), John Tipple (Respect), Jeffrey Titford (UK Independence Party), Keith Tully (Liberal Democrat).

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