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Can UKIP split the vote in Ludlow?

South Shropshire | News | Published:

Nick Clegg's performance and a high profile fight by former Tory MP Chris Gill could see the Lib Dems back.

Nick Clegg's performance and a high profile fight by former Tory MP Chris Gill could see the Lib Dems back.

It's 10am in Bridgnorth Livestock Market, and after early trading in the auction area, farmers are tucking in to a hearty English breakfast or a bacon sandwich in the cafe.

Once they have learned that I am there to meet Conservative candidate Philip Dunne, the conversation quickly turns to which party is best for rural areas and the farming community.

Most of the farmers there are Tory supporters, although one, who lives just across the border in the South Staffordshire constituency, is thinking of voting Liberal Democrat. There are no Labour voices to be heard.

What they all want is the next government to take a much tougher line on tuberculosis in cattle which they are convinced is being spread by badgers.

After years of inaction and the spending of hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation payments, they want action. They want a cull.

Farmers are not interested in the level of compensation for slaughtered cattle. They want the herds they have built up over generations to remain healthy.

One of those present, Nigel Matthews, who breeds pedigree Limousin cattle at Byebrook, is so worried that he's thinking of emigrating to Canada

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"If I get it (bovine TB), I'm finished," he said.

Mr Dunne, a livestock farmer himself, understands their concerns and can probably count on the votes of people working in or for the agriculture industry.

But that alone won't secure a return to the Commons for the Conservative candidate. Twelve months ago, I would have said he was a shoe-in for a second term at Westminster. He has been a hard-working MP and his party had been consistently ahead in the opinion polls.

A couple of things have changed the complexion of this South Shropshire constituency since then, and both could count against Mr Dunne on May 6.

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First there's the surge in support for the Liberal Democrats based on Nick Clegg's performances in the television leaders debates, and secondly there is the intervention of former Ludlow MP Christopher Gill in the contest.

The ex-Tory parliamentarian is standing for the United Kingdom Independence Party this time around, having lost faith in the Conservatives ever achieving his personal goal to give the public a vote on leaving/staying in the European Union.

UKIP polled fewer than 800 votes in 2005, but Mr Gill is running a much higher profile campaign, and his face is very well known across South Shropshire.

His candidacy is pretty well certain to strip votes mainly from Mr Dunne, but the former Wolverhampton butcher said: "We are getting a very good reaction from traditional Labour and Liberal supporters as well as the Tories."

But he insists he hasn't entered the race simply to embarrass Mr Dunne. "We're fighting to win because there's no point in doing it otherwise. Whether you vote Lib, Lab or Con, what you get is the same: the same agricultural policy, which is very important in this area; the common fisheries policy; and the same trade policy. It's what the EU decrees," said Mr Gill.

"The other question on everybody's lips is immigration. We are the only party that holds out any prospect of changing the present situation. Because the Lib-Lab-Con are totally committed to the EU project, they cannot have any say over the movement of people from other EU countries."

Mr Gill cannot understand why the British people are not given a cost and benefit analysis of the UK's membership of the EU.

"How on earth can the Government continue paying £45 million of our money each and every day for benefits that no one will attempt to quantify?" he asked.

The biggest beneficiary from Mr Gill's candidacy will undoubtedly be the Liberal Democrats' Heather Kidd, who ackowledges this, but adds that things started changing on the doorstep for her last October.

As the former leader of South Shropshire District Council, Mrs Kidd is also well known around the constituency and has noticed a distinct change in the mood of voters since she campaigned for ex-MP Matthew Green in 2005.

"This time people are really open-minded, actually wanting to talk about the issues. It's almost as though they have realised that we are at a crossroads," she said. Membership of the district council and now of Shropshire Council ensures that she is well versed in local issues, not least rural housing and the need to provide "affordable" homes for local people in an area where house prices have been inflated by retiring incomers from the South East of England.

Then there is the thorny question of broadband, or to be more accurate, the lack of it in many villages.

"I live in Chirbury, and I can't even download the Shropshire Council website. This constituency is full of really small businesses and the problems with broadband are making it very difficult for rural communities to stay sustainable.," she said.

That applies to one of South Shropshire's great potential growth areas - tourism, with B&Bs, for instance, unable to advertise or take bookings online.

The Labour Party picked up nearly 5,000 votes in 2005 a total their candidate, Tony Hunt, is unlikely to achieve this time. Mrs Kidd reckons most of the Labour votes, many of them concentrated in the east of the constituency in Bridgnorth, Broseley and Highley, "are coming my way".

Defending a majority of only just over 2,000, Mr Dunne concedes that Labour votes could go to the Lib-Dems, but argues: "That means we could be in hung parliament country with all the uncertainty that will create. If we get that, interest rates will go up, hurting businesses and home owners.

"Everyone knows that it's time for a change from Gordon Brown's tired government, and people recognise that a hung parliament carries pitfalls.

"I am seeing a Liberal swing to me, and a big stay-at-home from Labour supporters."

The chairman of the rural group of MPs in the last Parliament argues that only by voting Conservative in constituencies like Ludlow can lead to a change of government "to get the country back on its feet and end Labour's neglect of the countryside".

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