Election 2015 England

Three former MPs among candidates competing in Northampton North

Northampton General Hospital
Image caption The future of the town's hospital is one of the battleground issues in the Northampton North election

Voters up and down the country will generally have at least one parliamentary candidate they recognise - their most recent MP battling to keep a seat at the top table of politics. In Northampton North, there is a more than familiar look to the election race as three former MPs compete for the role. But will experience as an MP be an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to the election trail?

When Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, Sally Keeble and Tony Clarke were elected as Labour MPs for the first time.

Eighteen years on, the pair - who sat in neighbouring Northampton North and South - have both lost their seats.

And this year they will be fighting on opposite sides - two of three candidates with experience as MPs competing in Northampton North.

The third is Michael Ellis, the Conservative who was elected to the constituency in 2010.

"At a time when people are very sceptical about politicians generally I think it is quite useful for the electorate to be able to look back at their performance," he said.

He points to his record on the Rate Your MP website, where he is ranked fourth in terms of frequency of voting and 13th "most value for money" MP.

Image copyright University of Northampton
Image caption Michael Ellis said the proposed new University of Northampton Waterside campus will increase town centre footfall

Now a Green party candidate, Mr Clarke is a veteran of four general election campaigns; three as a Labour candidate and in 2010 as an Independent.

Those campaigns took place in Northampton South, where he served as a Labour MP from 1997 to 2005, famously opposing Tony Blair over the Iraq war.

"People have experience of how we respond to the challenge," he said. "I am proud of my record as a constituency MP who put people before party."

Former colleague Ms Keeble, MP from 1997 until 2010, said the real advantage came from having "served people in the past".

She said: "At a time when people are suspicious of politicians somebody who has been out on these streets for a long time has an advantage."

Of course, not all of those involved in the Northampton North election have Westminster experience.

Liberal Democrat Angela Paterson admitted she was "hugely inexperienced", while UKIP's Tom Rubython said he was "very much the junior in the line-up".

'Negative baggage'

"As the new boy you do not get asked about your record," Mr Rubython said.

"I do not have any negative baggage," said Mrs Paterson. "My remit is to convince people we have a new kind of politics."

One issue she is convinced on is the need for a new hospital, with an out of town location her preference.

"The standard of care at the current hospital is superb," she said, "but it is just too old."

Mr Rubython believes the hospital issue is one area over which not having been an MP is an advantage.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jeremy Hunt visited Northampton, where there are calls for a new hospital

"They have been in power before and yet Northampton has a 222-year-old hospital," he said.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary in the coalition government, and his opposite number Andy Burnham enjoyed tit-for-tat visits to the town last week.

Labour's Mr Burnham promised to hold a "health summit" to discuss expanding the hospital if his party was elected in May.

It is a commitment backed by Ms Keeble but Mr Ellis rejected the idea calling it "more of the same unfunded Labour promises."

Mr Clarke preferred to concentrate on problems caused by "hospital competing against hospital".

"I am more interested in where that money will go," he said.

Tom Barton, BBC Political Reporter, Eastern region

In most constituencies there is one former MP fighting the election - the man or woman who was the local MP until Parliament was dissolved at the end of March. In some places, where the incumbent has retired, there aren't any former MPs standing.

And it's not uncommon for two former MPs to fight an election - often the person who lost their seat at the last election will want another crack at the whip. But to have a situation where there are three former MPs fighting one seat is extremely rare.

And in Northampton North the fight is cast in a particularly interesting light, because the Green candidate and his Labour opponent used to sit alongside each other in Parliament, as the Labour MPs for the south and north of the town.

These former allies are now fighting on opposite sides, both hoping to overturn the Conservative candidate who won the seat from Labour at the last election.

Mr Rubython said while plans had been put in place for a Waterside Enterprise Zone, to move the University of Northampton campus and for a museum extension, the hospital had been left to deteriorate.

"We have already had a new railway station and a bus station," he said. "Shouldn't the hospital have been first?"

The changes already made in the town are something Mr Ellis is proud to champion though.

He points to the increased footfall the new campus is set to create in the town centre, what will be the largest enterprise zone in the country, and the new railway station.

Ms Keeble, Mr Rubython and Mrs Paterson are less than enthusiastic, with Mrs Paterson going as far as to call it "tawdry".

All three criticised the new bus station as "too small," Mr Rubython calling it "a complete tale of woe".

Image caption The North Gate bus station replaced Greyfriars, which has since been demolished
Image copyright Corrine West
Image caption Lib Dem Angela Paterson said nothing has been put in place to replace Greyfriars

The decision to re-open Abington Street to cars has also come in for criticism.

"There is real anger about what the Tories have done to Northampton," Ms Keeble said.

"Money has been spent in the wrong areas, on the bus station and digging up Abington Street."

It is an argument Mr Ellis rejects: "I do not accept the town is in any way anything other than on the up."

Mr Clarke pointed to the need for a unitary council to remove "a shire council that continues to under-spend in the town.

"Northampton is becoming almost a squireocracy, starting at the county council, through the police and crime commissioner and into the borough."

The economy casts a wide shadow over the whole election.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Opening Abington Street to traffic has forced cafes to move tables and chairs inside

Mr Ellis insisted the Conservatives could be trusted "to continue along the path to firm up the economy". Ms Keeble said people "see a government giving tax cuts to millionaires and protecting non-doms".

"Labour and the Conservatives want to divide the country into hard working families and benefits scroungers," Mr Clarke said.

Mrs Paterson believes the actions of the Lib Dems in government in "putting the national interest above party politics" have already benefited people in Northampton North, but Mr Rubython said things were getting worse for those at the bottom of the economic pile.

"People in the eastern district are willing to try something new," he said, a message to candidates who have already had a turn.

"We need a government clear about where it is going," Ms Keeble said.

In Northampton North though, the candidates' past may be just as important as the future they promise.

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