Who has pushchair couple's vote?

Unlike politicians or journalists, voters don't talk in soundbites. So when election trend-seekers descend on a weathervane constituency like Basildon they hope to find Essex Man switching to Labour, or keeping John Major's flickering hopes alive by promising to stand by the Conservatives.

In practice, following the Tory canvassers, you find the authentic voice of political indifference. After weeks of blanket coverage of the election, a voter pressed on her allegiance cheerfully says that she "hasn't really thought about it at all". People pretend not to be in and leaflets are stuffed through heavily fortified mock-Georgian doors.

When a door opens and an actual Tory-to-Labour switcher is found, the candidate John Baron steps up, ready for the cut and thrust of debate. Why has she decided to change sides? "A mixture of things," she says and refuses to be drawn any further. When a Liberal Democrat-to-Conservative switcher is found, she says it's not about anything in particular, just about "things generally".The meaning of "things generally" is going to be under considerable analysis between now and May 1, as Basildon's doorstep waverers are heavily lobbied by politicians aware of the symbolism of winning the constituency. This week Tony Blair and Kenneth Clarke visited Basildon, hoping to find that this white, working-class, Essex new town is going their way.

Basildon won its place in electoral mythology on election night in 1992, when the news that Labour had failed to take this key marginal seat first signalled that Neil Kinnock's hopes of taking power were to be thwarted.

Tony Blair's New Labour knows it will have to win seats in the south of England such as Basildon to gain a parliamentary majority.

Labour's candidate in Basildon and East Thurrock, Angela Smith, is quietly confident. "I wish I had a fiver for every time I heard people saying that now that they've got children they've become interested in issues like education and health."

"Parents were promised so much by the Conservatives," says Angela Smith. "Now they feel betrayed by what happened. They're saying that they want real improvements in class sizes and nursery provision."

With a procession of council seats in the town falling to Labour since the 1992 election and the supporting evidence of the polls, she has every reason to expect to achieve the necessary 4.5 per cent swing - a figure that takes into account the re-drawing of the constituency boundary.

So if Essex Man is being replaced by Essex Parent, how do the Conservatives see their chances?

"We're neck and neck with Labour," says Tory candidate John Baron. "But there are a large number of voters who won't decide until nearer polling day. "

A first-time candidate, he has taken on the seat after the high-profile backbencher David Amess moved on to a safer seat in Southend West.

John Baron says that the grant-maintained system introduced by the Conservatives has improved standards, but says that this is only one element in the constituency's educational needs. "The school's job is to realise the full potential of children - which means more than just measuring achievement in exam results."

With a high proportion of secondary schools opting out in Essex, selection could have been a vote winner for the Conservatives. But with Labour's determination to match the tough talking on standards and parental choice, it seems that there is little scope for the Conservatives to go onto the attack.

Even where there is concern about the future of opted-out schools under a Labour government this isn't necessarily translating into votes for the Conservatives. The Grant Maintained Schools Advisory Committee's representative for headteachers in eastern England is Alan Roach, head of Chalvedon School in Basildon - of which Angela Smith is a former pupil.

Although unconvinced by the Labour party's plans for grant-maintained schools, he says that those in education should be careful not to use children as political pawns.

The Liberal Democrats' candidate, ex-boxer Terry Marsh, hopes to push up his party's support, but this is a two-horse race between the main parties, with the winner likely to form the next government.

Conservative and Labour supporters are irritated by the Essex Man stereotype. In the 80s, the constituency backed the Thatcher dream. If the polls are to be believed, the loadsamoney stereotype is about to be finally laid to rest, run over by Pushchair Couple tuning in to Tony Blair's softer-edged promises on education and health.

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