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Constituency profile: North Shropshire - Paterson on course for Commons return

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If you believe the bookies, Owen Paterson only needed to make the most cursory of cleaning efforts when he vacated his Westminster office this week – as he'll be back behind his desk in a few weeks' time.

Each day this week we're profiling the six constituences that make up the Shropshire Star region; Telford, Wrekin, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, North Shropshire and Montgomeryshire. Today we look at North Shropshire.

Were a punter to stake a pound on the former Northern Ireland and Environment Secretary recapturing his North Shropshire constituency in just over a month's time, they would walk away with just one additional penny to show for it.

Owen Paterson with David Cameron

Results from 2010:

OWEN PATERSON (Con) 26,692

Ian Croll (Lib Dem) 10,864

Ian McLaughlan (Lab) 9,406

Sandra List (Ukip) 2,432

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Phil Reddall (BNP) 1,667

Steve Boulding (Green) 808

Conservative majority 15,828

Turnout 65.7 per cent

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  • The North Shropshire turnout of 65.7 per cent was lower than in other parts of the county last time out, but in line with the national rate of 65.1 per cent.
  • The voter demographic runs very much in line with what is considered to be core Conservative territory. The voting population is 95 per cent white British, 71 per cent Christian, and 23.1 per cent are over the age of 65.
  • It’s hardly surprising, then, that it has been a Conservative seat for all but two years since the constituency was first created in 1832 – although in its original guise it elected two members, and returned a Whig named John Cotes as its second member between 1832 and 1835.
  • Since its creation, the seat has changed its name twice, moving from North Shropshire to become Oswestry in 1885, before reverting back to its original name again in 1983.
  • John Biffen, who held the seat before Owen Paterson, was a key member of Margaret Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s, serving as Chief Secretary of the Treasury then Leader of the House, before falling out of favour and ultimately facing the sack. He had originally become the Oswestry MP at a by-election in 1961, and held the seat continuously until 1997, when he stood down before becoming Lord Biffen of Tanat. He died in 2007.
  • Another famous face to have held the seat was William Clive Bridgeman, who was the MP between 1906 and 1929. His initial victory was one of the few cases where the Liberals were defeated – the party won 397 of the seats (59 per cent) to the Conservative and Liberal Unionist’s 156 (23 per cent).Among his governmental posts, Bridgeman was Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. After retiring, he was chairman of the BBC at the time of his death in 1935.

His odds of 1/100 to win in the constituency are the most comfortable of any candidate in Shropshire, and it would be a huge upset if he were to be dislodged at this election.

Trailing in second place in the betting is the Ukip candidate, Andrea Allen, with odds of 16/1 behind her.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour – second and third last time respectively – are both considered outsiders with odds of 100/1 behind them, with the Greens not even making the bookies' shortlist.

Even the radical Class War Party (slogan: "Because All Other Candidates Are Scum"), has given the seat up as a bad lot, with nominated candidate Al Derby now switching his campaign to Wolverhampton North East.

It's hardly surprising that the frontrunner has targeted his early campaigning at the farming community.

As head of Defra before he was dethroned in the last cabinet reshuffle, Mr Paterson won plenty of friends – and no shortage of enemies – with his hardline policies on badger culling and GM crops.

The constituency contains huge swathes of countryside, Walford & North Shropshire College, which has plenty of expertise in agriculture, and the ABP abattoir at Ellesmere – one of Shropshire's largest private employers. Such is his interest in agricultural issues, the MP has even found time in recent weeks to interrupt his election campaign with a visit to South Africa to look at farming overseas.

Since he was ushered towards the door as Prime Minister David Cameron shuffled his pack last July, Paterson has widely been considered to be a thorn in the leader's side, and is something of a figurehead for the more right wing elements of the party.

The majority of nearly 16,000 at the last election was the highest achieved in the North Shropshire seat since 1992, when John Biffen sailed to victory with a majority of 16,211.

The constituency – which has been called North Shropshire since it changed its name from Oswestry in 1983 – has been painted blue at every election since briefly falling into Liberal hands at a by-election in 1906.

Labour came within 2,195 votes of capturing the seat in the midst of its landslide triumph in 1997.

But that proved a false dawn for the party in the constituency, and by last time out, it had been shunted into third place behind the Liberal Democrats.

Graeme Currie, who runs an independent social work business across the region, has been put forward as Labour's challenger for the seat, and has made wages and the cost of living a key issue in his campaign.

Birmingham University student Tom Thornhill will be wearing an orange rosette on behalf of the Liberal Democrats at the election, and has pinpointed social care and youth centres as areas of interest.

Children's social worker Duncan Kerr will be representing the Green Party's interest in the seat.

This time, it's Ukip which is likely to provide the closest challenger to the Tories, but with a right wing Eurosceptic as the current incumbent of the seat in Parliament, it may be that the challenger party's principle point of policy is already catered for among voters on the patch.

Still, there's no room for complacency at this most unpredictable of elections, when the corrosive effect of the U vote could scupper either of the leading parties' plans for power.

  • Keep up with all the Shropshire and Mid Wales election news at www.shropshirestar.com/election

Paterson's opponents will no doubt point to the current seat holder's record of voting in Parliament, which has seen him take part in eight debates in the last year, and participate in 50.5 per cent of votes in Parliament – well below the average of all MPs.

By comparison, his neighbour Daniel Kawczynski has attended 29 debates and voted on 80.4 per cent of issues.

In stark contrast to other parts of Shropshire, where seats have changed hands with some regularity, just two MPs – both Conservative – have held onto North Shropshire since 1961.

Even before John Biffen took charge, it remained a true blue seat.

With this election looking to be nip-tuck in terms of one party sealing a majority in parliament, the Conservative Party could do with its traditional heartlands remaining safe and untroubled.

But the party will still need to reassure people that rural issues are being treated with the gravity to which they are entitled if it is to be sure of victory here.

Meet the candidates:

Owen Paterson

The politician seeking re-election in North Shropshire is a well-known figure both at local and national level – Owen Paterson.

The Whitchurch-born Cambridge graduate has held the seat since 1997, when he inherited the Conservative candidacy from long-time constituency MP John Biffen. He has risen within the party ranks to hold key positions including Northern Ireland Secretary, before taking over as Environment Secretary. That came to a dramatic end when he was moved out of the cabinet in the last reshuffle, and since then he has proved a thorn in the side of his own party leadership with his Eurosceptic position and right-wing leanings, which are considered at odds with the more socially liberal outlook of the modern Conservatives.

Andrea Allen

Ukip's Andrea Allen will be hoping to improve on the party's performance in the constituency at the last election, when Sandra List finished fourth with 4.7 per cent of the vote to Paterson's 51.5 per cent.

Given that her main opponent is as Eurosceptic as they come – having already called for Britain to withdraw from Europe in favour of a restructured trade agreement – she may find her party's USP to be somewhat redundant in this constituency.

A Whitchurch Rural Parish councillor in the Tilstock ward, she was elected unopposed to the position last year before sealing the party's candidacy in the General Election.

Qualified social worker Graeme Currie will be challenging for the seat from a Labour perspective.

Graeme Currie

A member of Christians on the Left, he moved to the area with his family 10 years ago and now runs an independent social work business across the West Midlands. He is hanging his campaign on a party-wide push for the rebalancing of wealth in society. "People are being hit by a cost of living crisis, but North Shropshire's Tory MP has been a key part of a Government that is doing nothing to help," he says. "I would stand up for local people hit by this cost of living crisis, not stand idly by."

North Shropshire local Tom Thornhill is to stand on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and in doing so will be the youngest candidate in any seat in the county.

Tom Thornhill

The fresh-faced Birmingham University student, who is 20 years old, combines his studies with volunteer work for groups dealing with issues of sexuality, a disability or mental health problems.

Having had his first taste of politics aged seven, when he spoke at an event to protest against the closure of Whitchurch Hospital, he now uses his position to call for increased funding for the North East Youth Centre in Whitchurch, and greater support for care homes for the elderly.

The final candidate in the patch will be Duncan Kerr, who will be the second person to contest the seat on behalf of the Green Party. Steve Boulding attempted to gain the seat for the party in 2010.

Duncan Kerr

He is already a town councillor in Oswestry, having topped the poll in the Castle Ward in 2013, but now hopes to seize a second seat in parliament for the party. A children's social worker, he has supported local campaigns such as Frack-free North Shropshire, 20's Plenty and the Oswestry Equality Group in his role as a Green Party activist. Those five candidates will not find themselves facing Class War's Al Derby, who is to contest the Wolverhampton North East seat instead.

  • Follow the campaign six days a week in the Shropshire Star newspaper, round the clock on at shropshirestar.com/election where we will carry breaking news and by signing up to our email newsletter.

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