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Gary Younge
Memories linger in town that defied the doom

While it might not quite have the drama of President Kennedy's assassination, most people in Luton can remember exactly where they were when they heard in December last year that the Vauxhall plant was going to be closed. They recall it because it was such a shock.

On Monday, they were told it had a future. By lunchtime the next day, less than a fortnight before Christmas, they were told the plant would soon be a thing of the past. They heard not through the management but on the radio and through word of mouth. One man was told as he nipped out to a newsagent during his break; another found out on his car radio while taking a drive on his day off.

The reaction at the time was a mixture of rage, at the insensitivity, and despair at the consequences. Over the decades Luton had become something of a company town. The Vauxhall Recreation Club is described as the best leisure facility in town. Everyone was either related to or knew someone who worked in the plant or whose livelihood depended on it in some way. The chamber of commerce predicted the loss of 6,000 jobs. "What's going to become of this place - Vauxhall is Luton," said Jason Boniface, a forklift driver, at the time.

But while the anger is still there, the sense of impending doom has dissipated. With the buoyant economy absorbing much of the blow, applications for redundancies were oversubscribed. The airport, which continues to grow, is now the town's single biggest employer.

So one of the few issues on which candidates agree is that Vauxhall itself is not a major issue on most doorsteps. Even Joe Hearne, the candidate for the Socialist Alliance in Luton South, says: "People are just keeping their heads down and have either taken the redundancy or carrying on and hoping there won't be any more."

But that does not mean it won't have an effect. Out canvassing for Labour on the rundown Marsh Farm estate, Bill Morris, leader of the TGWU, believes it could have a serious impact on turnout. "The motivation will be low. Getting people to come out and support the government after something like that is very difficult."

So Labour is concentrating on mobilising the core vote. Both Luton constituencies fell to Labour from the Tories in 1997, and, despite majorities of over 9,000 in Luton North and 11,000 in Luton South, they are technically marginals.

But judging by the campaigning on both sides it is being treated as safe Labour territory. Having performed well in the local elections of 1999 and the European elections, Labour has good cause to be confident. For the most part, Luton is natural New Labour territory. A skilled and semi-skilled workforce which is sufficiently aspirant to want to move on or even out, but sufficiently vulnerable to seek reassurance that if anything goes wrong the state will be there to catch them.

Once attracted by the Tories, many still bear the scars of 80s excess. Estate after estate bears testimony to rows of ex-council tenants who exercised the right to buy and then crowned their purchase with a satellite dish, only to have all of it taken away with high interest rates: Luton was the repossessions capital of Britain.

Elsewhere, there are pockets of extreme poverty, like the Marsh Farm estate, which saw three nights of rioting six years ago, and where social, economic and political alienation is deeply engrained, despite John Prescott's recent arrival bearing gifts of £44m in New Deal grants.

"People have felt very let down by this government because they had high expectations that things were going to change and mostly they haven't been met," says Iris Hume of the Marsh Farm community development trust.

But Labour has two strong, if very different candidates. In the South, where the Vauxhall plant is based, is Margaret Moran, approachable, popular, and very much on message. Ms Moran is keen to use her next term to develop her constituency's economic potential. "I want to shift the skills balance towards new technologies. We need to train people so that we can be part of the Cambridge arc."

In the North is Kelvin Hopkins, a leftwing rebel with a strong personal following. "I think people do identify strongly with Kelvin because he is always around," says Ms Hume. "If they vote Labour it will be for him, not for Blair." Both candidates say health, education and pensions are the key concerns on the doorstep.

If the Conservatives are determined to break that hold, it is not obvious. Notwithstanding Ann Widdecombe, a handful of shadow cabinet members unrecognisable to the general public have been brought in to help. Call their office and you will wait 24 hours for a reply and another 24 to speak to a candidate.

Amanda Sater, standing in Luton North, says a high level of apathy is making the campaign difficult to read. "We are concentrating on Labour's failure to deliver, and a lot of people who left us in 1997 are receptive to that. But there were also a lot who simply didn't come out and vote or who are undecided and we just don't know what they are going to do."

Despite the demise of Vauxhall, with two strong Labour candidates and a strong economy, few think those votes will come Ms Sater's way. When she heard about the closure of the Vauxhall plant, she was, she thinks, in her office in London, where she lives. Unlike most in Luton, she can't be absolutely sure.

Constituency profile: Luton North & South

Luton North is a Tory long shot, even though it contains the party's safest ward of Icknield. A residential and urban constituency with a fairly young population

Currently held by: Kelvin Hopkins, Labour
Majority: 9,626
Electorate: 66,956


Conservative Amanda Sater
Labour Kelvin Hopkins
Lib Dem Bob Hoyle
UKIP Colin Brown

Luton South is mainly urban. It includes Luton airport and the Vauxhall plant, which will close by 2002 with the loss of 2,000 jobs. More than 15% of the population are Asian

Currently held by: Margaret Moran, Labour
Majority 11,319
Electorate 70,572


Conservative Gordon Henderson
Labour Margaret Moran
Lib Dem Rabinda Martin
Socialist Alliance Joe Hearne
UKIP Charlie Lawman
Green Marc Scheimann

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