Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

MP with... the smallest majority

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Laura Moffatt
Mrs Moffatt prefers commuting to having a flat in Westminster

Whenever Laura Moffatt takes her shoes off she is reminded of her own vulnerability.

The Crawley MP has the most marginal constituency of anyone in the House of Commons - having won it by just 37 votes at the last general election.

Far from wanting to forget her predicament, she had the number tattooed onto her left foot, under a "New Labour" rose symbol.

Mrs Moffatt told the BBC: "Having told my sons never, ever get a tattoo, I decided to get one.

"It's a good reminder, and it's a bit of fun. The number 37 also means more than when your majority is in the thousands - it focuses attention."

Mrs Moffatt, a former haematology nurse, first took Crawley, in West Sussex, in the 1997 election, by more than 11,700 votes.

Re-counts

The majority fell to 6,770 in 2001 before its more recent shrinkage to near non-existence.

The 2005 vote was so close that it took what Mrs Moffatt calls "four-and-a-half" recounts before her Conservative rival conceded defeat.

Laura Moffatt's tattoo
The tattoo could have a companion after the next election

When this finally happened, she burst into tears.

The 54-year-old mother-of-three said: "The last election meant much more to me even than the 1997 one.

"I was awake for 40 hours campaigning and then waiting for the re-counts. If anybody goes through that they would cry too.

"But I was ahead for all the recounts. At one stage it seemed like I had a majority of 35, but they found two more votes."

Mrs Moffatt has seen both sides of elections, having lost out to Conservative Nicholas Soames - "a perfect gentleman throughout the contest" - in 1992.

'Feels like rejection'

She said: "I thought in 1992 'Let's have a go'. And I thought afterwards 'I'm never doing that again'.

"It was a bit like childbirth. I thought I would never do it again and I've done it three more times.

"But even if you expect to lose, losing is hard. It feels like rejection."


There was a lot of hurt over the war... It was the most difficult vote I have ever had to decide on

Laura Moffatt

The build-up to polling day does not sound like much fun, either.

"I've got myself down before every election. I'm just the worst person in the world for that.

"In many ways I'm quite fortunate, in that I would quite like to go back to my old job, but I've had an amazing time here.

"It may be a Labour thing, thinking it can't last. The Tories have a sense that they are born to rule and we don't.

"It's often true that the opposition gets a bit of an easy run. But, rather than everyone just accepting things, there seems to be more and more investigation of what the Tories stand for.

"I think people might think a bit differently when they start to think about them in more detail."

'Not driving desire'

Crawley is one of the constituencies in south-eastern England that David Cameron's Conservatives will be fighting hard to win.

The party is currently enjoying a lead in the national opinion polls which, if translated to the local level, would put Mrs Moffatt out of a job.

She is promising to work tirelessly to keep her seat, but says she will not run again for Parliament if she loses.

"I think we can turn it around and beat the Tories next time round, but it's not been my driving desire to be an MP.

"If I lost I would do a back-to-work course. It's a transformed National Health Service - unrecognisable from when I was a nurse and the Tories were in power. I would like to work in it now.

"I've just done three weeks' voluntary service in Sierra Leone. If anyone says we have a third-world health service, I get quite angry because they don't know what they're talking about."

Gatwick Airport
Mrs Moffatt's husband works at Gatwick, Crawley's biggest employer

However, Mrs Moffatt feels Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has failed to trumpet its achievements.

"I still live on the same estate I lived on 30 years ago. I've seen people who have had their lives transformed by improvements in help with childcare. It's the same in schools - so many of them used to be so hopeless, so directionless. There's such a difference.

"I don't know what we can do about possible boredom with our party, but you have to remind people that change for the better hasn't come about by chance or accident. It is people sitting in Parliament. We have to remind people what we've done."

Unusually for an MP, Mrs Moffatt is genuinely "local". She grew up in Crawley, studied there, worked in the local hospital and served on the council, becoming mayor.

Top-up fees

She commutes to London each day, having at one time rented a flat near Parliament, which she did not like.

Mrs Moffatt's husband is a shift-working engineer at Gatwick Airport, by far the biggest source of employment in her constituency.

As parliamentary private secretary to the then higher education minister Alan Johnson, she helped get top-up fees for university students through the House of Commons.

Mrs Moffatt says she "absolutely" still supports the policy, which angered many Labour supporters.

More significantly, for an MP with a large Muslim population within her constituency, she voted in 2003 in favour of the Iraq war.

Might it have cost Mrs Moffatt some votes?

'Harder than nursing'

She said: "There was a lot of hurt over the war and I had a lot of discussions and visited mosques to talk about it.

"It was the most difficult vote I have ever had to decide on. I feel it was right now, but at times I wondered.

"Being an MP is harder than being a nurse. At least when we did 12 hours at work we knew it was someone else's job for a bit now. In this job you always feel you haven't done quite enough.

"I suppose most MPs would say their work level has gone up over the last 11 years, but I think I worked just as hard when I had an 11,000 majority."

Mrs Moffatt, a cheerful woman who enjoys office banter with her staff, likes to think her minimal majority has enlivened the atmosphere in Crawley.

'More relevant'

She said: "It makes people more involved in politics. People are talking about politics more.

"When I go and speak at schools in my constituency and I tell children about the size of the majority it makes things more relevant to them.

"But you can't think about your majority every second of the day. You just have to get on with the job.

"People think I've got 'Yes Tourette's' because I keep saying 'yes' to things. But it's because I like to follow through with things, not because I'm changing my style as an MP.

"I can't change the way I am, like chasing the youth vote in a cheesy way in an effort to win. If a 54-year-old woman tried getting down with the kids it would seem wrong."

Might her "body art" give her a certain cache with Crawley's young, though?

Mrs Moffatt said: "It's been reported in the press that, if I win next time, and increase my majority, I'd like to get a tattoo in a bigger place - my backside.

"I think another number on the same foot as the old one might be more appropriate."

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