British voters face hard choices amid hard fight in hard times

British voters face hard choices amid hard fight in hard times
Who will end up in the driving seat? Labour – led by Mr Ed Miliband (left) – and the Conservatives – led by Prime Minister David Cameron (right) – are running neck-and-neck despite fierce campaigning.

As the setting for one of the most hotly contested seats in this week's general election, Dudley town in the West Midlands isn't much to crow about.

Boarded-up shops with "To Let" signs sit cheek-by-jowl with cash lenders, betting shops and pound cafes (where everything on the menu costs £1 each, or around S$2). Gloomy passageways off the High Street lead to deserted shopping arcades, where only one or two traders see a handful of grey-haired customers, loyal to a favourite butcher or locksmith. Even the local tourist draw - the 14th-century ruins of Dudley Castle - looks unwelcoming, with dug-up pavement and wire fence hoardings crowding the entrance.

And yet much is at stake here, as the leading Conservative and Labour parties, which were neck- and-neck in recent polling, fight for every marginal seat, in a bid to lay first claim to forming the next government.

Dudley North, a constituency of 60,000 voters where Dudley town is located, is one such seat. In the last election, Labour's winning margin was just 649 votes, or 1.7 per cent of the total. This makes Dudley one of 37 seats with a majority of less than 2 per cent.

The three-way tussle for Dudley reflects not just the keen battle being waged at the national level between Labour and the Conservatives, but also their fear that the anti-immigrant party UKIP will gain votes from disillusioned supporters. UKIP might not clinch the prize, but could deny them victory.

In addition, the hot-button issues - the fragile economy, excessive immigration, creeping Islamisation - are playing out in real life and real time for this community of 314,400 people.

Dudley, which lay at the heart of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, has seen better days. The 2008 financial crisis still casts a pall - 3.1 per cent are jobless, against a national average of 2 per cent.

But the locals are sceptical about promises of change. This is despite pledges from Labour's Ian Austin to improve youth education, bring investment and jobs to the town, and push for legislation on immigration. Tory candidate Les Jones has made similar vows.

"After the elections, they go to sleep," says Mr Tarsem Singh, 51, a stallholder who sells and repairs watches in the market square. "They promise you everything, but give you nothing. It makes no difference who you vote for - people aren't better off. Politicians just want to feather their own nests."

Still, politicians need to gain votes, whatever their motives. There are 650 seats being contested in the general election, but statistics show that, even during Labour's landslide victory in 1997, some 70 per cent of these seats remained unchanged, as voters stuck with the incumbent party. So parties are banking on swings in ultra-marginal constituencies such as Dudley North to decide who governs after Thursday.

For the past 20 years, the working-class constituency of Dudley North has been a Labour stronghold. In the last election in 2010, however, many voters - disgusted by Labour's management of the economy - swung to the Conservatives, eroding Labour's majority to a mere 1.7 per cent. Nationalist party UKIP, too, posted one of its strongest showings in this seat, garnering 8.5 per cent of the vote.

With such a narrow margin, the pro-business Conservatives were hoping to win Dudley North outright this time. But the rise of UKIP threatens to upset the calculations of both Tories and Labour. It also did not help that, in March, the Conservatives were forced to replace their Muslim Asian candidate, Mr Afzal Amin. Secret recordings revealed that he tried to plot with the white supremacist English Defence League (EDL) - the group was to have announced a protest march against a new mosque, and he would have taken the credit when they called it off.

"I might have voted Tory, if Afzal Amin hadn't done that," says office worker Davinder Lal, 27. "Dudley is a ghost town over the weekends; there are too many boarded-up shops. I want to see more independent businesses here."

The loss of ethnic minority support makes it harder for the Tories to stop Dudley from reverting to its Labour roots. Figures from ElectionForecast.co.uk as of last Thursday show Labour ahead with 40 per cent, followed by the Conservatives (29 per cent) and UKIP (24 per cent).

Still, what fuels excitement in closely fought seats like this one is that voters can switch allegiances on polling day.

Ms Wendy Farmer, 60, who sells children's clothes in the market, says she has always voted for Labour. But she is considering voting for UKIP on Thursday. "My sister lost her job recently because of (government) budget cuts. She didn't get anything. But these immigrants are coming in to take advantage of the system, claiming benefits," she tells The Straits Times.

She bristles at what she describes as arrogant behaviour displayed by Eastern European immigrants. "There was a Romanian here wanting to buy a £350 necklace for £300. When my friend said he couldn't sell it at £300, the Romanian called him a fool for working, bragging that he didn't need to work and could still buy the necklace."

Meanwhile, UKIP candidate Bill Etheridge is trying to win over voters in this predominantly - 85 per cent - white community by vowing to save the local pub and police stations and to block the building of a new mosque. The current mosque sits in a former school building and accommodates 500 worshippers. The new complex, dubbed a "mega mosque" by its detractors, will have a 19m minaret and space for 750 worshippers.

With Mr Afzan out of the picture, this leaves the Muslim community, which makes up 5 per cent of the population, with little choice. The socialist Labour party has generally been seen as more welcoming of other cultures.

"Islamophobia is bad here," says Ms Thara Anwar, 44. "It's a replacement mosque, not a mega mosque. I'm voting for Labour."

For some voters, old habits die hard. Despite his cynicism, Mr Singh says he always votes Labour because that was the government in power when he first came to England from India in 1976.

Meanwhile, fruit-seller Wayne Brown, 35, who was born in Dudley and comes from a family of die-hard Conservatives, is unswayed by UKIP. "The bottom line is who's done the most for working people. I'm not interested in race issues. They can build a mosque as long as we don't have to pay for it. Everyone's welcome as long as they work hard and don't come just for the benefits.

"Except for the Roma gypsy kids who nick everything. Other than that, I ain't bothered."

leenski@gmail.com


This article was first published on May 4, 2015.
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