IN an upstairs office in Nelson town centre, the Conservative Party machine is in full swing.

Sixty bundles of leaflets are neatly stacked and labelled, alongside balloons and T-shirts bearing the name of candidate Andrew Stephenson.

Less than 100 yards away, working in his Carr Road office, is the man the big-spending Tories are desperate to unseat.

Labour’s Gordon Prentice, who won in Pendle in 1992, has waged war against Lord Ashcroft, the Belize-based tax exile and financial backer of the Conservatives’ push to win marginal seats.

Flicking through his collection of Mr Stephenson’s recent publications, Mr Prentice accuses the Tories of ‘trying to buy’ the constituency.

“I am very much the underdog and am fighting for my political life”, he admits.

It would take just a 2.65per cent swing for the man elected in 1992 to be ousted by the Tories, and Pendle is seen as a classic ‘bellwether’ seat, whose results often reflect the voting patterns in the rest of the country.

“This is a prime Conservative target”, says Professor David Denver, an elections specialist at Lancaster University.

“If they are going to make any advances they have to win here.”

Back in the Tories’ recently-refurbished Cross Street headquarters, Mr Stephenson, a 29-year-old insurance broker installed as the candidate in 2006, is keen to play down his financial backing as he organises mailshots to be sent out.

“It’s actually a quiet day today,” he says.

“Yesterday was chaos and we had about 24 people out delivering leaflets and another 15 people helping in the office.”

The day the General Election was called, 25,000 leaflets were hand-delivered, albeit by a team of volunteers, and the local party’s accounts reveal a surge in support in recent years.

There is no way of knowing how much has come from Lord Ashcroft, as his money is given out through central office grants.

But in 2007 the party’s income was £49,799, almost double the previous year, with the main reason given as ‘an increase in funding from central office’, and the following year it went up to £82,752, including a £19,000 grant from Conservative HQ.

By contrast Rossendale and Darwen, another Tory target seat, was given just £3,785 by central office in 2008.

Mr Stephenson is quick to point out that a large chunk of the money, much of which is raised by local activists, is spent on overheads and staff costs.

These include 26-year-old George Askew, a Lancashire County councillor, who is working in the next door office wearing a ‘Stephenson for Pendle’ T-shirt.

A former housemate of Mr Stephenson, he is now employed full-time to help manage the campaign.

Mr Stephenson, who lives in Colne, was a councillor in Macclesfield at 22 and became involved with the Conservative Party aged 16.

He estimated ‘around one per cent’ of his funding came from Lord Ashcroft.

And despite benefitting from Lord Ashcroft’s donations, he reveals he would support a ban on donations to political parties from ‘non doms’, people who have their tax home outside the UK.

“That’s my view, and I think it shows how independent Conservative candidates are,” he insists.

On whether he should reject Lord Ashcroft’s funding given that stance, he said: “We can’t say to Conservative HQ ‘can you take out the one per cent of cash that might have come from non-dom donors’.”

Mr Stephenson said Mr Prentice’s attacks had been ‘childish’ claiming Labour too receive money from non dom donors.

Mr Prentice has been at the forefront of the criticism of Lord Ashcroft, having submitted the Freedom of Information Act request to the Cabinet Office which triggered the announcement about the Conservative deputy chairman’s tax status.

And the Labour man has put the issue at the heart of his campaign, using his website and literature to attack the Tory peer.

Mr Prentice says the Ashcroft mailshots have had a ‘subliminal effect’ on voters, adding: “I am not nervous at all.

"I don’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the election.

"I have got my back against the wall, and I am coming out with all guns blazing.”

As well as being number 45 on the Tories’ target list, Pendle is also in the sights of the Liberal Democrats, who have ranked it at 53.

Mr Prentice, who has a 2,180 majority, is worried about losing votes to the Lib Dems and has focused many of his recent attacks on their candidate, barrister Afzal Anwar.

Mr Anwar, whose odds have been slashed from 40/1 to 16/1 following his party’s surge in the polls, said: “Gordon Prentice can carry on doing that.

"People are fed up of him.”

He claimed the Lib Dems’ positive poll ratings following the televised debates had left battle for Pendle wide open.

“I am extremely positive, from the messages on the doorsteps and people are stopping me on the street,” he added.