Election 2015

Youngest, oldest, richest, poorest constituencies - what are voters saying?

Eastbourne pier at dawn
Image caption The sun rises over Eastbourne pier at the start of the journey

Britain's political leaders have been accused of doing anything to avoid meeting the voters in this election campaign, so we thought we would do it for them.

The mission was to visit the constituencies with the richest, poorest, youngest and oldest electorates to get a snapshot of modern Britain in all its diversity and contradictions.

And to do it in a single day. On public transport. Needless to say, not everything went according to plan.

But what emerged - after more than 600 miles and a lot of buffet car coffee and sandwiches - was something you would never get from a stage-managed campaign event.

A feel for what people are really thinking. Some of it may surprise you.

So join me as the journey begins in the one place in Britain where you are guaranteed to find plenty of older voters. Or so I thought.

Eastbourne - the oldest town in Britain (possibly)

Image caption Freddie Starr is among the forthcoming attractions at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre

Eastbourne. Genteel jewel of the south coast.

Where Freddie Starr and Mike and the Mechanics are on the cutting edge of live entertainment.

Where the pavements are choked with mobility scooters. Where the average age, in one part of the town, recently surpassed 70.

That's only half the story, however. Young people are everywhere in Eastbourne.

Within minutes of stepping off the train from London I am nearly knocked off my feet by a kid on a skateboard. My hopes of finding a retired person, or indeed anyone, to talk to are fading fast.

As the sun sets over the pier that was nearly destroyed by fire last year, the sea front is virtually deserted.

Peter, a remarkably youthful 86-year-old, cuts a lonely figure on the shingle beach with his metal detector. He's not having much luck.

Image caption Peter is a solitary figure on the beach at Eastbourne

"You don't find much really. Sometimes pennies," he tells me.

Why does everyone retire to Eastbourne?

"It's nicer than Tunbridge Wells," laughs Peter. Makes sense.

He says he will be voting in the general election but he has not made his mind up who to back. The biggest concern for him and his friends is immigration.

"If you are English in this country you have got nothing. That is what most of us think. If anything goes wrong they would rather blame the English than the Europeans."

"We take too much notice of Brussels," he adds.

He sounds like a prime candidate for Nigel Farage's People's Army.

"He hasn't got much chance," sniffs Peter, a retired heating engineer. "There is too much in-fighting in UKIP, amongst themselves."

Image caption Hatty won't be voting Lib Dem again

Eastbourne is a Lib Dem/Tory marginal.

Hatty, a 23-year-old events management student at the University of Brighton, which has a large campus in Eastbourne, says she voted Lib Dem last time but feels betrayed by Nick Clegg's tuition fees U-turn and will be voting for "one of the main two" this time. She hasn't decided which. She feels passionately about young people using their vote.

"It's really important that we vote, otherwise the politicians aren't going to do anything for us. They do stuff for older people because they vote."

Stephen Lloyd, who won the seat for the Lib Dems in 2010, is "very active in the local community", says an accountant, queuing up for a coffee at the station.

"It will be a close run thing," he adds, although he will be voting Conservative because "I don't think any other party would have made a better job of running the last five years" and clearing up the economic "mess". Weren't the Lib Dems part of that government?

"The Lib Dems gave it a better balance. I don't have a problem with the coalition," he says.

06:24 Eastbourne to London Bridge

It's a perfect spring morning as I board an early commuter train at Eastbourne. As we glide in near silence through the South Downs countryside it occurs to me that this scene has probably not changed much for a century or more. Each station sees a fresh phalanx of bleary-eyed middle-aged men in suits and overcoats crowding on to the train, bound for jobs in the City. The only difference between now and the Edwardian era is that everybody is wearing headphones.

After arriving at London Bridge a few minutes behind schedule, I take the Jubilee Line and change at Westminster for the Circle Line to High Street Kensington.

Here are BBC profiles of the constituencies I travelled through: Eastbourne, Lewes, Sussex Mid, Horsham, Crawley, Croydon Central, Croydon North, Dulwich and West Norwood, Camberwell and Peckham, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Vauxhall, Cities of London and Westminster, Kensington.

Kensington - the richest place in Britain

Image caption Kensington Palace Gardens - where houses cost more than £40m

The super-rich are invisible. I'm in Kensington Palace Gardens, where the average property price is £43m, making it one of the most expensive places to live in the world.

The gorgeous tree-lined avenue is home to several foreign embassies and it has a slightly eerie, under-populated feel to it, with police officers stationed at either end and no one, other than the occasional gardener or workman, on the pristine pavements.

"You won't meet anybody who lives round here, we all come in to work for them," one young man informs me. I try my luck in another street.

An elderly lady, out walking her dog in nearby Palace Gardens Terrace admits to being a local but she she doesn't want to be interviewed about the election because it's "ghastly".

Thank the Lord, then, for the East Europeans.

Image caption Elena feels passionately about education

Elena, out for a stroll with her two young children, is very happy to talk politics. In fact, she can hardly get her words out fast enough.

"I would like to hear more information based on the facts. Rather than fairy stories created and sold to the public," she says.

She hasn't decided which way to vote. She appreciates the Labour Party's commitment to "fairness", but does not like the way "the blame is always laid on rich people".

But what really gets Elena fired up is education.

"I was raised in the Soviet Union and we didn't have any private education. We had state schools. All education was controlled by the government but it wasn't a poor education, it was a brilliant education and the quality of it comes from the family, from the family values."

Image caption Few locals can be seen on the streets of Kensington

She worked her way up to become a director of conferences and exhibitions but has now "retired" to look after her children. Her husband, an English man, is an entrepreneur in the same business.

She feels "lucky" and "privileged" to live in such a wealthy area but believes this life is within reach of anyone who works hard. She is passionate about the need to "inspire" children and fill them with ambition.

"It's brilliant that in this society you have these welfare benefits, but welfare should be given to the people in need, the people in physical need.

"By creating this welfare mentality people become very lazy. People are capable of working and they think why should I work and they sit at home and do nothing.

"It's wrong and comes from the government and I think the benefits should be reduced."

Image caption Oleg says he is a 'natural Conservative'

Kensington is a solid Conservative seat, although Sir Malcolm Rifkind was forced to step down as the MP after being secretly filmed apparently offering his services to a private firm for cash. He denies any wrongdoing.

Oleg, managing director of a metals company, who was born in Poland but has lived in the UK for 20 years, is - he tells me - a "natural Conservative" so he will be voting for David Cameron's party.

"I trust him and that's important to me. To trust politicians is not always easy," he says.

He is a firm believer in Britain's membership of the EU. Is it worth putting that at risk in a referendum, as Mr Cameron has promised?

"Yes it is. It's called freedom."

I ask him about the gap between the rich and poor in the UK.

"I live in this area and I work in the City of London and I commute and I must say that I don't see many other areas. I see many other countries and I would say that compared to other countries the gap is not so noticeable."

11:15 London St Pancras to Nottingham

I'm running an hour late thanks to chaos on the London Underground, caused by a derailed engineering train. But the journey to Nottingham on a half-empty Midland Mainline train is uneventful.

Here are the Parliamentary constituencies I travelled through: Holborn and St Pancras, Finchley and Golders Green, Hendon, Hertsmere, St Albans, Hitchin and Harpenden, Luton South, Luton North, Mid Bedfordshire, Bedford, Bedfordshire North East, Wellingborough, Kettering, Harborough, Leicester South, Leicester East, Charnwood, Loughborough, Rushcliffe, Erewash, Broxstowe, Nottingham South, Nottingham North.

Nottingham - the poorest city in Britain

Image caption Aspley is one of the most deprived areas of Nottingham

"It's like that programme Shameless round here, mate. They're all smackhead or crackheads."

An angry man in a grey sweatshirt is giving a running commentary on his neighbours as he attacks the soil in his front garden with a shovel.

"You have to be careful what you are saying because you'll get bricks through your windows but they don't know what work is. They are quite happy on a day like today, like this one coming down here now with a can of effing lager in his hand. They don't do graft, mate."

Nottingham recently came bottom of the league in an Office for National Statistics survey of disposable household income. The Aspley district is one of the most deprived in the city, with 52% of children growing up in poverty.

You can pick up a semi-detached house for as little as £60,000, although the average across the area as a whole is higher at £152,867. Many people live in council or private-rented properties. Life expectancy is 10 years lower than in Kensington.

Any mention of politics or the general election tends to be met with a mix of anger and apathy.

Image caption Sylvia says politicians 'want a good kick up the arse'

"They want to come and live in my world. And do a day's graft. They wouldn't last five minutes," mutters angry shovel man (he wouldn't give his name).

Immigration is an issue - with East Europeans blamed for undercutting wages and taking jobs from local people - although no one I meet says they are voting UKIP.

"I'm not against people coming in from other countries," says Sylvia, a mother-of-four and grandmother of seven.

"I don't give a damn because I've got no prejudice in anything but if there's no jobs there what's the point of bringing more people when you can't keep people that's living there in work. That's a bit Double Dutch to me.

"But what do politicians do? Talk a load of fuff and do the opposite anyway so that's why I'm not interested in them.

"I've voted occasionally but really and truly I can't be doing with the idiots. They all want a good kick up the arse, I'm telling you."

Image caption Lisa and Charly like living in Aspley, despite its problems

Not everyone I meet is quite so negative about politics.

"Nobody wants to vote no more because they think there's no point. I think it's laziness really. Everyone should vote. We'll be voting Labour," says 38-year-old Lisa.

She is "happy" living in Aspley and can't think of anything wrong with the area, even though it has changed a lot in the past 20 years.

"You don't know if you can talk to your neighbours any more because you don't know if they are just casing your joint out to see what you've got," she laughs.

Nottingham returned three Labour MPs at the last election, with Graham Allen representing this area.

People round here are always skint, says Lisa, adding, in a stage whisper, "sometimes - I'm not being horrible - but sometimes people on the dole look like they've got better things than us though".

She adds: "You get help with your tax credits, even though it's a Conservative government. It's better than it was before, when Margaret Thatcher was in. You are getting help but I'm sure Labour would be better.

"I liked Tony Blair, sorry to say," she says, adding that Ed Miliband talks in a "weird" way.

Charly, 19, says she has applied for "loads of jobs" without any luck.

"My GCSEs are not the best but I've got GCSEs and they're not Fs, not failures. I've put the effort in and I've got nothing. I've only had one job and I'm nearly 19. It's hard."

How do they feel about the rich?

"I'd feel that I couldn't speak to somebody that was rich," says Lisa. "Like they'd look down on me. That's how I'd feel.

"I look after my children, my husband goes to work, I'm a housewife, but I would still feel lower than them. You know what I mean? It shouldn't be like that. We're all people. Tax them more, make it a bit fairer."

14:47 Nottingham to Blackburn

It all starts to go wrong about an hour into the first leg of the journey, as the guard comes through the carriage to announce: "A freight train has broken down on our route and we are not going anywhere." We are stranded in Sheffield for half an hour before starting a painfully slow lurch through the Pennines to Manchester Piccadilly. Now more than two hours behind schedule, I jump in a cab for a white-knuckle ride through the back streets to Manchester Victoria, where I make the Blackburn train with minutes to spare. The 30-mile journey, on a cramped, noisy commuter train, takes nearly an hour.

These are the constituencies we pass through en route: Nottingham North, Broxtowe, Amber Valley, Bolsover, North East Derbyshire,Chesterfield, Sheffield Heeley,Sheffield Central, Sheffield Hallam, High Peak, Hazel Grove, Stockport, Manchester Gorton, Manchester Central,Salford and Eccles, Bolton South East, Bolton North East, Rossendale and Darwen, Blackburn.

Blackburn - the youngest population in Britain

Image caption Tia, Shannon and Amanda say they don't understand politics

"There are too many kids. I hate kids," says 18-year-old Tia. She is definitely living in the wrong town. Blackburn was recently revealed as the youngest place in Europe, with one in four of the population aged under 15.

We are sitting round a table in a side room at the Blackburn Youth Zone, an impressive sports and leisure facility run by a charity and part-funded by local businesses and the local authority.

Centre manager Monica has assembled a group of the older members, who will be entitled to vote on 7 May, to talk politics.

The atmosphere is a little strained. Politics is not their favourite subject.

"We don't get told about it. When you are old enough you want to know what to do and who does what. But it doesn't make sense. It's too much to read at once," says 19-year-old Shannon.

There is a brief discussion about what happens to your vote if you don't use it.

"If you don't vote it goes to the people who are already in charge now. Your vote goes to them," insists 20-year-old Amanda.

Image caption The gold facade of the Blackburn Youth Zone is caught by the setting sun

"I don't understand it all," says Shannon again.

This general election is likely to have a bigger impact on the lives of these young people than almost anyone I have met on this journey.

The issues they tell me they care about, from the "bedroom tax", to jobs, tuition fees, homelessness, schools, crime and housing are all directly impacted by decisions made at Westminster.

Yet they don't see any connection with what happens there and their own lives.

No one appears to have heard of Jack Straw, who featured in the same cash-for-access sting as Sir Malcolm Rifkind (he also denies wrong-doing), but had already decided to stand down from Parliament after 36 years as Blackburn's Labour MP.

Tia says she was stopped by a police officer at the weekend, who told her she had to turn back because there was an English Defence League march ahead, even though she was with a friend who was "fully white". It was an upsetting experience.

Does that sort of thing not make her want to get involved in politics?

"The way I see it, if somebody wants something to happen that badly it will happen," she says. She is the only one of the group to have registered to vote and seems interested in learning more about politics, even though she gave up on the party manifestos because they were too boring and negative.

If she saw David Cameron she would tell him "you need to sort it out, mate," she jokes.

I start to wonder what Elena, from Kensington, would have made of the group. Or they of her.

They are bright, funny and obviously interested in what is happening in their lives. They just don't see any way of changing it. Certainly not through voting, which they regard as a faintly eccentric activity at best.

"Kev's Dad's obsessed with it," says Amanda, who has recently had a baby.

"Every day he's like 'you need to vote'. It's all he ever says to me every single day. And he's always putting the thing on telly. When they were all on them stands and arguing with each other and stuff. I just ignore it."

Final thought

So as I slump in my seat on the last train out of Preston to London, shortly before 21:00, after a brief Northern Trains run from Blackburn, something suddenly occurs to me.

Apart from a Conservative billboard, as we pulled out of Eastbourne, I didn't see a single election poster on the entire 634-mile trip. No boards in gardens, no party stickers in windows. For large parts of the country it barely feels like there is an election happening at all.

BBC News Timeliner: Meeting the voters

Image copyright Getty Images

Meeting the voters on the campaign trail can be fraught with danger for any politician seeking election, as a quick delve into the BBC archives displays.

Watch video from the vaults on the BBC News Timeliner