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The fight to be next Ribble Valley MP
IN 1989 Nigel Evans finished a distant third in a by-election in Pontypridd, South Wales, with the victorious Labour candidate polling more than half of the vote.
“It was like pushing jelly up the wall”, he recalls.
Twenty one years later, his opponents know how he felt.
In 2005 he stretched his majority to 14,171, occupying one of the safest Tory seats in the country.
A trip around Clitheroe underlines the scale of the challenge in front of those hoping to change the political landscape in this true blue section of Lancashire.
“I’m definitely not voting Labour”, said 73-year-old John Wallcort, out shopping with his wife.
“It’s not that I’m rich, but this is a very amenable area, and it will always be Conservative for me.”
“Nigel Evans will be back in, people are stuck in their ways”, added 36-year-old Simon O’Rourke, who runs a market mobility stall.
Roger Hope, who has owned a butcher’s shop on the high street for 25 years, said he was most worried about the business rates he was charged for his premises, and said the (Conservative) council needed to do more for the town centre stores.
But he added: “I won’t be voting Labour. I never have done. They’ve got us into a right mess.”
Speaking at his home in the picturesque village of Pendleton, the morning after scooping two bottles of wine in the raffle at a village fund-raising night, Mr Evans offered some tips to those hoping to cause an upset on May 6.
“I think you can enjoy a battle more when you think your chances of success are slight,” he said.
“My sage piece of advice to them is to enjoy what they are doing.”
But the man who won back the borough from the Lib Dems in 1992, following a shock defeat in a poll tax protest vote, insisted his team were taking nothing for granted. Boundary changes have left him with Labour-dominated wards in areas like Bamber Bridge and Farrington, at the expense of Tory Fulwood, which has slashed his “notional” majority to more like 5,000 by some estimates.
“We will fight it as if it was a marginal. There is no such thing as a safe seat. There’s always the option that people could just decide to vote for someone else.”
The Electoral Reform Society disagrees, listing Ribble Valley as part of Britain’s “safe parliament”, telling Mr Evans he could ‘pack his bags for Westminster’ before the election had even been called.
Yet the candidates hoping to cause an upset are defiant about their chances. Liberal Democrat Allan Knox had a particularly tough start to the campaign, being bitten by a dog while delivering leaflets.
He also has to contend with his party’s clear policy to cancel the third tranche of BAE Systems’ Eurofighter Typhoon contract.
Other parties have rounded on the Lib Dems over BAE, accusing them of putting thousands of jobs at risk at and around its Samlesbury base.
Mr Knox said the Conservatives had not yet committed to the project, adding: “We have been absolutely honest.
"It’s not a system that is going to be appropriate to what we need in the future.”
Listing priorities including fair taxes and green jobs, he said: “I have got to work and give people a reason to change their minds.
“If you don’t put your head above the parapet to get shot at, it will never happen.”
Former soldier Paul Foster has won the Labour nomination, and he is juggling the campaign with a full-time job for a renewable energy company in Salford.
He was equally upbeat, even borrowing the Tories’ ‘time for a change’ slogan to press for an end to Mr Evans’ reign.
“I do not think it’s a thankless task. I still believe the Labour Party, and me, can win this seat.
“There is a real appetite for change in the types of MPs we are sending to Westminster.
"And the boundary changes have helped.”
Mr Foster listed his three goals as securing the recovery, employment and affordable housing provision.
Also in the contest is former Clitheroe FC chairman Steve Rush, the UK Independence Party candidate.
His tenure at the club included the 1996 cup run to the FA Vase final at Wembley, and the 55-year-old is promising a “common sense” approach as he looks to perform a different type of giant-killing act.
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