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Travelling on the London Overground to Watford, you wouldn’t necessarily realise that it’s a town separate from London. There’s no visual break as you cross the border. Yet Watford has been a settlement in its own right since Anglo Saxon times. These days, it’s often described as a two-way commuter town: home to several large company headquarters which bring workers in from London and elsewhere, while many Watford residents commute out to the city.

Now, Watford has its own borough council, which is led by one of only seventeen directly elected mayors in England. The position was created in 2002, and has for the last thirteen years been held by Liberal Democrat Dorothy Thornhill. She’s also running as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Watford in the 2015 general election. With Conservative MP Richard Harrington contesting the seat again too, the race effectively has two incumbents.

But Watford has historically been a Conservative-Labour marginal (though it had a Liberal MP between 1906 and 1910). Labour have fielded Matt Turmaine as their candidate, a Watford councillor for Holywell ward. And while Turmaine doesn’t have the same recognition factor as the other two candidates, this still isn’t looking like a two-horse race.

Since 2014, the polls in the constituency have fluctuated significantly. In Ashcroft’s June 2014 poll the Conservatives ranked first, with Labour in second and the Lib Dems in third. In his September 2014 poll, Labour edged ahead and took the lead. In the November poll, though, the Liberal Democrats quite dramatically overtook Labour to put them in a close second place behind Harrington.

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Though he comes out of it looking strong, Harrington is skeptical of the polling. “In a seat of this size [over 80,000], you would need to poll between 3000 and 4000 people to get results that are clear of the margin of error. So I take no notice of that sort of thing at all.”

Turmaine was, when we met, keen to point out that both electoral calculus and YouGov forecasting put Labour in the lead. Since then, though, both measures have put the Harrington in the lead. These aren’t polls, but rather calculated assessments based on fundamental characteristics of the seat in combination with national polling data. Given the unique local factors here — namely, the unusual prominence of the Liberal Democrat candidate — these should definitely be read with caution.

It’s impossible to tell whether the volatility of the data surrounding Watford is a result of genuine opinion shifts, or a function of the seat’s very close marginality and/or limited sample size. Though one candidate may pull further ahead before polling day, for the moment it looks like a genuine three-way marginal.

Interestingly, though, none of the candidates is branding it as such. Thornhill was adamant that it’s really between the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. In her campaign office, the Ashcroft polls which show her closing in on Harrington get pride of place next to the front door.

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“Because I’m standing, I think it’s between me and Harrington” she told me. “If we’d have selected another candidate, it probably would have been a three-way. And I think if Labour had selected a kind of ‘celeb’ candidate, and targeted more, it would have been different. It has the potential to be a genuine three-way marginal, but circumstances have made it a two horse race. But I bet Matt [Turmaine] wouldn’t say that.”

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t. Both he and Harrington also characterise the contest here as a two horse race, between Labour and the Conservatives. Thornhill was, it seemed, aware of this dynamic; and knew what she thought about it. “They’re trying to marginalise me!”

This weaponisation of the seat’s marginal status — on the part of all the main parties — comes as no great shock. There’s a strategic advantage for a Harrington in downplaying the viability of a Liberal candidate that has as much name recognition as he does, and who, as he admits, is not too far from him on the political spectrum. “The political differences [between us] are not huge”, he told me.

For Labour, casting the choice as between either Labour or the Conservatives offers the best chance of minimising the splintering of the Left vote between Labour and the Lib Dems.

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Similarly for the Lib Dems, Labour supporters might be more likely to vote tactically to keep the Conservatives out if they believe that only the Liberals have a realistic chance of defeating Harrington. Thornton’s characterisation of her core vote makes it clear that she’s planning on poaching from the Conservatives, too, leveraging off the perception that the Lib Dems were a moderating force in the coalition.

“There are people — caring conservatives — who are generally concerned about a right wing Conservative majority. And when they look at the money being taken out of public services, they know it will make a difference.

“And within Watford, there are Labour voters who know it’s between me and Richard. They know me. There are those who probably think I’m a witch with two horns, but there’s a considerable majority that would rather me than him [Harrington]. Because they know me. They know that I’m not a right wing nutter, they know I’m not heartless, and they know I’ll stand up for what I believe in, which I have done.”

She sums up her support base succinctly. “I feel my key to success is those caring conservatives, and those genuine left of centre people.”

Things look different from the Conservative side of the fence, though. During my conversation with Harrington, he commented dryly “I have a very good relationship with Dorothy. I think she’s a bit embarrassed by the way the Conservatives are made out to be extreme, when she knows that’s not the case. This has been a very moderate Conservative government.”

Thorn hill's campaign office: each ward gets its own board

Inside Thornhill’s campaign office: each ward gets its own board

Turmaine was fairly confident in relation to Thornhill’s claims on the Left vote. “I’ll be totally honest with you, she will definitely retain support for the Lib Dems that another candidate wouldn’t. But I really do not believe that they’re going to do it. The collapse in the vote nationally is so great.”

Though it’s clear that the three main parties are the main contenders here, UKIP will prove disruptive. They’re been polling consistently at around 14% of the vote. Harrington put forward the unusual view that “nine out of ten votes for UKIP come from the Conservatives. It’s a fallacy that significant numbers of UKIP voters come from Labour”.

The research on the UKIP vote suggests otherwise, as did the campaigning experiences of Turmaine and Thornhill. Peter Kellner’s research for YouGov, which Turmaine drew on in our conversation, suggests that around 60% of those who declared support for UKIP in January 2013 voted Conservative in 2010. Meanwhile, of a newer wave of UKIP supporters — those who only moved to supporting the party after January 2013 — only 36% had previously voted Conservative. Of those who moved to UKIP after January 2013, 23% were coming from Labour.

As far as the dividing issues go in Watford, they’re typical of the country as a whole: the economy and the NHS predominate. For Labour the economic dimension relates to the cost of living crisis, as well as future growth: among other issues, Turmaine highlights that train fares have gone up from Watford by 22% since 2010. “You show me someone whose salary has gone up by 22% since 2010!” he said, giving off an air of exasperation.

Watford streets

Watford streets

Meanwhile, Harrington focuses on the continuing stabilisation and growth of the economy in the post-recession climate. “Unemployment has more than halved here”, he told me. Thornhill also commented that the employment market is better in Watford than for much of the country. “For young people, the main challenge now tends to be getting a roof over their heads”.

The NHS has a particular importance here, with the much-needed redevelopment of Watford General Hospital at the centre of debate. A new health campus has been subject to financial difficulty: the West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the hospital, is severely indebted, which is rendering the timing and extent of further development unclear. Original plans for a brand new hospital have been shelved.

Turmaine describes the situation like this: “The Trust can’t contribute money to it because they can’t borrow money on the market, because they’re not a foundation trust. They can’t become a foundation trust until they’re out of the red. They can’t get out of the red, at least in part because of the price they’re having to pay for agency nurses. So the whole thing is grinding to a halt, and not delivering what it needs to.”

As Mayor, Thornhill has championed plans for the health campus, which have already received significant funding from sources other than the trust, and Harrington has also been heavily involved with the site’s redevelopment. In his online plan for Watford, he points to the addition of new wards during his time as MP, and the confirmed £3.9 million expenditure to recruit a further 160 nurses specifically for Watford General. Thornhill, on her website, highlights that “only the Liberal Democrats are committed to increasing NHS funding by £8bn in real terms by 2020”.

Digital impression of future developments of the Health Campus. Source

Digital impression of future developments of the Health Campus. Source

Turmaine is skeptical about the redevelopment as it stands, though. He tells me that “new wards have opened, but you’re still fundamentally dealing with victorian infrastructure there. It needs proper modernisation”. He cites Labour’s plans to “put 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 more carers and 3,000 more midwives into the system” as a starting solution to the problem of NHS hospitals dependent on more expensive agency nurses, and increasing demand for services. But with a caveat: “of course those people will need training. It will take time.”

Through there are clear points of disagreement between the candidates, and the contest in Watford is incredibly close, there is little sign of personal acrimony between them — though on a party political level, each obviously has bones to pick with the others’ manifesto and leadership.

Thornhill in particular is rather biting about the Labour leadership: “the tribalism of some in the Labour party terrifies me.” I ask: tribalism in what sense? “I think they hate us with a vengeance which for intelligent people is quite worrying”, she replies.

This perception evidently affects her stance on coalition making. “that would make it very, very difficult to work with people who have no respect for us. So in a sense, if anything, I’m coloured against Labour.”

Thornhill does, though, profess to be “a real Liberal. I’m not fleeing from the other parties.”, she says. “And I think people who genuinely feel they’re liberal don’t feel drawn to one or the other [Labour or Conservative]. I just think you get on and make the best job you can.”

Harrington's campaign office. Source: Twitter

Harrington’s campaign office. Source: Twitter

As my conversation with Harrington drew to a close, he took an unusual step for a Conservative candidate: endorsing a view he attributed to Tony Blair, that “people don’t make their minds up until the last two weeks or so before an election.” Accordingly, he believed that a lot of voters in Watford were still undecided.

With all three candidates vying for those undecided votes, arguments about strategic voting have real significance as well as the obvious policy positions. For many voters, it’s as much about who you want to keep out, as about who you want in. Thornhill recounted a very unusual permutation of this.

I got one person who said they were voting for me tactically because they didn’t want to have me as mayor”, she laughed. “I thought that was a good one.”