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No contest

Swindon is a key Tory marginal but neither Labour nor Conservative activists seem keyed-up to fight for it. Andrew Calcutt reports

It was a freezing cold day in January, but 1000 people were queuing in the town centre. A food queue in St Petersburg? No, a queue outside a job centre in Swindon, Wiltshire, waiting for news of just 60 vacancies offered by Japanese pen company Pentel.

Swindon is one of the Tory marginals (majority: 4857) which Labour must win to form a government. It is also an area where questions about Britain's future are starkly posed, an eighties boom town turned nineties slump city where 400 firms closed their doors last year. Yet the striking impression after talking to Labour and Tory activists was that neither side had any confidence that it would win.

In the bar of Swindon Conservative Club, enthusiasm and confidence were in short supply. 'The Conservatives are the best of a bad bunch', said an accounts clerk. 'I think our MP might just about scrape back in'. His wife, who works in a pub, added: 'There's not a proper leader among any of them. They're all out to line their own pockets and none of them are linked to working people. But you've got a little bit more of a chance with the Conservatives.'

These were dues-paying members of the Conservative Party. Club committee members were more loyal but equally apprehensive. 'The recession must have an effect on the voters', said one. He expressed concern that sitting MP Simon Coombs was too quiet and unobtrusive to rally Conservative support. Two more paid-up Tories said they would vote Labour this time and they only came to the Conservative Club for a drink.

At one of many working men's clubs in the town, Labour activists were not exactly gung-ho either. 'I'm not sure if the Labour Party can sort out the economy, but I don't think anybody could', said a lifelong Labour supporter. 'I do know that Labour needs a better leader than Kinnock.' Another long-serving Labour man was equally unconvinced: 'You wonder sometimes if there is any difference.' He feared that Labour candidate Jim D'Avila might lose votes as a trade union official and a Catholic of Anglo-Indian extraction. 'A total stranger would have more chance here', he said, but concluded, 'we won't get a Labour MP if it was God Almighty'.

These premonitions of doom were issuing from both corners at a time when the contest was still wide open. The lacklustre mood among all of Swindon's activists suggests they don't think their own respective parties can make a success of government.

A town like Swindon ought to be a hotbed of political controversy. It was one of the few constituencies which enjoyed economic growth in the eighties, and has been hit very hard by the recession. Its newly built housing estates are populated by the sort of skilled and white-collar working class voters which both major parties identify as the key to the election. The fact that even Swindon is stuck in the political doldrums is a telling indictment of British politics today. It shows that no party has what it takes to win the hearts and minds of a large and growing section of society - the southern working class.

Swindon has always been a solidly working class constituency, and its political allegiance has changed several times in line with wider trends of working class opinion.

Father to son

Before the war, the town depended on the engine sheds of the Great Western Railway. Skilled jobs were handed down from father to son and Swindon's MPs were paternalistic Tories. Wartime brought nationalisation of the railways and the coming, as one activist recalled, of 'a strong Labour opinion'. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, Swindon's blue-collar, unionised workforce elected Labour MPs. In the eighties, British Rail closed its Swindon works. Traditional firms - Garrard's record-players, Compton's coats - followed suit. But the town was revitalised by an influx of service industries and hi-tech manufacturers (most of them defence-related or foreign-owned like Honda cars).

Between 1981 and 1990, Swindon's labour force grew by 18 500 (26.7 per cent). Financial Times journalist Roy Hudson celebrated 'the magnetism of the former railway town...30 glittering industrial and business estates...an important national centre for four modern industries' (Financial Times, supplement on Swindon, May 1988). Swindon earned the title 'fastest-growing town in Europe', and became the leading light in the handful of expanding urban centres between London and Bristol known as the Western Corridor.

The promise of future prosperity under a Tory government was one reason why working class constituents dumped Labour MP David Stoddart in 1983 and elected Tory Simon Coombs in his place. The subsequent short-lived boom was the major reason why Coombs increased his majority in 1987.

Some Swindon Labour supporters explain away the constituency's Tory MP by claiming 'it's not working class any more, now the dirty jobs have gone'. But the slump has shown that, whether you are employed as a Clydeside boilermaker or a Wiltshire data processor, you are a worker who is only a pay packet or two away from the breadline. The largest part of Britain's working class now consists of white-collar labourers, most living south of Watford.

A generation switched to the Tories, not for committed ideological reasons, but simply because they wanted a better deal. 'My father was a miner and socialist', said one Swindon printworker, 'I voted Labour in the past but in 1983 I was not impressed so I changed. I don't have much preference, but I think the Conservatives are marginally better because they get on with the job, whereas Labour promises the earth and then backs off'.

What can you do?

Now there is another generation of voters in Swindon, and most are unwilling to identify with either party. 'Whoever wins, the government still gets in', said a 22-year old selling hot dogs in the shopping centre. 'I just let them get on with it because it makes no difference anyway. My mates think like I do. Even if we choose something, they're not going to do it. But what can you do?'

'The police charge in Trafalgar Square was the worst sight I've ever seen. Awful. But would Labour do any better?', asks a building worker in his twenties: 'I don't know. I'm laid off from a building site. I was earning £600 a week and I saw it go down to £250. But you just have to accept it. I don't feel strong for any party. It doesn't make any difference, it's the way things are.'

This is now a strong mood in the south where traditional patterns of political allegiance have been widely abandoned. The mood is cynical but passive, with no sense of connection either with the existing system or with any alternative way of running society. Whoever wins the 1992 election, it seems the celebrations are likely to be muted in the clubs of Swindon.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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