A visit to Britain's most average electoral district

NORTHAMPTON, United Kingdom — Michael Ellis, Conservative candidate for parliament, smiled for the invited press, turned, cut the pink ribbon on the Lucky 13 Tattoo studio and declared it open for business.

This has to be the first time in history that a Conservative candidate has had a photo op at a tattoo parlor. It is unclear whether Ellis, a lawyer, made the appearance because he is a good bloke and was doing a favor for the parlor's owner, who he once represented in court, or because he is in an absolute neck-and-neck race to win the seat and needs all the publicity he can get.

What is certain is that everything that needs to be understood about the British election can be found in the constituency of Northampton North. Northampton, located 70 miles north of London, could be the most average place in England. The unemployment rate here is average, the ethnic mix is average, people's attitudes are average. What makes this constituency special is it has voted for the winning party in every election since 1974. Its sitting member of parliament, Labour's Sally Keeble, is, like her party, polling a distant third behind Ellis and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Andrew Simpson in the current campaign.

The hard truth for Ellis is that at this moment, less than a week before the polls open May 6, he is scrambling for victory. He and Simpson are neck and neck with the outcome impossible to predict.

It shouldn't be this way. Chatting at the Frog and Fiddle pub around the corner from the Lucky 13 Tattoo Parlor, I asked Ellis to explain why his party is struggling. Labour has been in office for 13 years, the party is divided into factions that squabble in public, it has been at the center of several corruption scandals and it has led Britain into the worst economic crisis since World War II. The Conservatives  should be comfortably ahead. Why aren't they?

Ellis answered with well-rehearsed boiler plate.

"There's still work to be done," he acknowledged. "The messages we are getting on the doorstep are diverse."

One charge against the Conservatives is that they are what they always have been, a party that favors the rich. Ellis refuted that: "The Conservative party today is different, we have undergone a lot of modernization." But he acknowledged that the general disillusionment with Britain's traditional two big parties has played a role in this campaign.

That disillusionment left the door open for the third party Liberal Democrats and their leader Nick Clegg to push it wide open with his performance in the party leader debates. For decades the Liberal Democratic party has been the home to people who are in politics out of idealism rather than a desire to win power. The party hasn't been a real factor in a national election since the 1920s. Now its candidates are trying to maintain a certain sang froid in the face of the dramatic change in their fortunes.

The Northampton North candidate for the Liberal Democrats, Simpson, calls the surge "icing on the cake." Sitting in his no-frills office, surrounded by volunteers stuffing envelopes, he claims his strong position is as much the result of years of steady campaigning at the grassroots level as the paradigm-shattering performances of Clegg in the debates.

In Northampton North, the Liberal Democrats have steadily worked for more than a quarter century to build their presence in local government. Simpson himself was elected to the Northampton council in 2005. Where Ellis is bluff and confident, Simpson, a personal finance officer in a chain of do-it-yourself shops, is earnest and ingratiating.

On this morning the candidate is working the doorsteps of the Kingsthorpe Estate, a suburban development of neat and tidy brick homes built in the 1960s. At this time of day most of those at home are retirees and shift workers. It is a neighborhood kindly disposed toward the Liberal Democrats.

Eric Pigney, a mailman, has voted Liberal Democrat since he was first eligible to vote back in 1974. I ask him why, since they always lose? He laughs, "I don't know really. Didn't feel an affinity with the other two, at first. " Now, however, he has clearer reasons. "When I started voting, Labour was Labour. It was practically communist but now the two big parties have drifted together. They [Labour] are kind of small c conservative.

"Labour was all for the have-nots but look at them now," he said. "Big houses, big cars."

As Simpson works his way around the streets he smiles as the senior citizens bend his ear about local problems and tries to politely explain his party's "liberal" position on immigration to all and sundry.

The assumption in London was that this was an election about the economy but, as Gordon Brown discovered this week, to his detriment, immigration is the emotive issue outside the capital.

Over and over again, the subject came up as Simpson worked his way around Kingsthorpe's streets. Bill Hester complained about the number of Poles coming in to the area and undercutting local workers on wages. Simpson tried gently to disagree by pointing out some numerical facts about Polish migrants in the area, but the facts were not enough to overcome the voter's emotion about immigrants. In shops and pubs all over the district the negative effect of immigration is what people wanted to talk about when asked about the election. Although they won't get many votes, the hard-right British National Party (BNP) had a lot of sympathizers.

The next most popular topic was how little difference there was between the main parties.

Seated behind Michael Ellis at the Frog and Fiddle, truck driver Alan Froggat exemplified the voter both concerned about immigration and disenchanted with the major parties.

"You just lose faith in politics," he said, before expressing sympathy for the BNP's anti-immigrant, "Britain for the British" stance. Who did he vote for last time? "The Lib Dems." Who will he vote for this time? "I don't know ... probably the same." He nodded toward Ellis, "I won't be voting for them."

After the Conservative candidate left the Lucky 13, I asked Christopher Smith, the artist running the tattoo shop, whether he would be voting for Ellis. He didn't look like the typical Conservative supporter, with a hint of the intricate, colorful tats that cover his body peeking out from the sleeve of a dress shirt he had worn especially to meet the candidate. Smith admitted he wasn't into politics and had never voted before. Then he and the other three people who work at the Lucky 13 all pledged to vote Conservative on Thursday.

In a contest as tight as Northampton North, those votes may be critical. Michael Ellis wasn't wasting a half hour when he agreed to snip that ribbon.