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England Writ Small

May. 01, 2005

Residents of Gravesend appeared nonplussed when Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown dropped into an Internet café earlier this month for a chat with teenagers from a student employment program. The cool reception may have been a result of classic British reserve, of course, but a more likely reason is that visits by politicians — usually with hordes of reporters and photographers in tow — have become all too common in this drab Kent town. Since the election was called four weeks ago, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy, Minister of State for Citizenship and Immigration Des Browne and Minister for Local and Regional Government Nick Raynsford have all descended on Gravesend. The Tories have sent party leader Michael Howard — twice. What attracts so many senior politicians to this former papermaking center? Gravesend sits in the bellwether constituency of Gravesham, 40 km east of London. Voters there have backed the winning party in all but two of the 22 elections since 1918, last missing the mark way back in 1951. In many ways, the area is England writ small: home to an important sea port when Britannia ruled the waves; a 19th century manufacturing center that suffered a long, painful decline; and today, a service-based economy boasting one of the largest shopping malls in Europe.

Gravesham voters, like many across Britain, are also disaffected with Labour leader, Tony Blair, if not the party itself. Incumbent Labour M.P. Chris Pond, 52, an affable former academic, believes Labour's economic record will be the decisive factor in delivering his party a third term. Under Labour's watch, the region has more than halved unemployment, from 10.2% to 4.5%, by attracting service jobs. Locals have also benefited from the lower interest rates and inflation enjoyed by the rest of the country.

"Even if you've done the best possible job as the constituency M.P., if the economy was going badly wrong it wouldn't make any difference at all," says Pond. Conservative Party candidate Adam Holloway, 39, is a former journalist who races around in a beat-up Volvo painted with the Union flag, with his Jack Russell Sidney — attired in similarly patriotic colours — in tow. He promises to make the growing problem of "yob culture" one of his top priorities. Like other parts of Britain, Gravesham has been struggling to contain the rampages of its younger residents. On New Year's Eve, the local Liberal Democrat candidate Bruce Parmenter was beaten unconscious after being pounced on as he walked home with a friend. "This community is getting more and more out of control," says Holloway. "Elderly people feel beseiged in their own homes."

There are other fears Holloway and his party hope to turn to their advantage. Adam Goodayle, 25, a designer who voted Labour at the last election, cites immigration as a key issue. "Some immigrants have not blended into society and seem to intimidate," says Goodayle, who believes the biggest problem lies with the newest immigrants from Eastern Europe. "Labour has been lenient on immigration." Yet, like many Gravesham voters, Goodayle says that he will "most probably" vote Labour on election day, partly in the hope that "Tony Blair will last 18 months and then Gordon Brown will take over."