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A visit to Britain's most average electoral district

Northampton voters explain why UK voters are swinging to the Liberal Democrats

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.