Page last updated at 19:59 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 20:59 UK

Testing the election pulse across the country

By Gavin Esler
Presenter, BBC Town Hall Debates

Man walking down back alley in the Bolton West constituency
Will the audience in Bolton West be more interested in local issues?

One of the big lessons about Britain, thrown up by the MPs' expenses scandal over the past year, is that politics cannot just be about them, the politicians.

It also has to be about us. We pay for it. We vote them in or out. We enjoy - or suffer - the consequences.

And it is our country too, not just the personal space of those in power.

With that in mind I will be presenting a series of BBC Town Hall Debates in key constituencies up and down the country, featuring the kind of places and the kind of people who will determine the shape of our next government.

The party leaders will have their say in the televised Thursday TV debates, but most of us will not have the chance to meet a party leader in person or to vote for one directly.

'Heartbeat'

All politics, as the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, famously observed, is local.

Gavin Cameron speaking to bakery workers in Bolton West last week
Bolton West was one of the first constituencies David Cameron visited

But our concerns - for the future of our children, for the economy, for war and peace, and the environment - are often national and even global.

Over the next few weeks, beginning tomorrow, our Town Hall Debates will visit the three constituencies of Bolton West, Stirling, and St Austell and Newquay.

In each place 100 or so local voters - many of them still undecided - will put questions to three or four candidates from the leading parties.

It means we will have a chance to listen to the heartbeat of Britain.

Will the questions raised by our audiences in the town hall settings be similar to those posed by journalists on the campaign trail, or put to the party leaders in their debates?

Will the concerns of voters be more difficult to brush off than sometimes happens in the big debates?

And will the local candidates prove that despite the scandals at Westminster and the greed of a few MPs, there are still plenty of decent British people willing to come forward to run for parliament for all the good reasons that we like to think motivates those who enter public service?

Three-way race

We are kicking off on Tuesday at noon on the BBC News Channel - and live on the BBC website - in Bolton West.

Gavin Esler
The show will give local voters the chance to quiz their candidates

Football fans will know the constituency as the home of the excellent Reebok Stadium and the local team Bolton Wanderers FC.

But the seat is also one where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all have a chance of winning.

The former Cabinet minister Ruth Kelly won the constituency from the Tories in 1997, and she is stepping down this time. Her majority was a slim 2,064, which makes the seat a Tory target.

But if you look at the figures on the Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council you see why the north west of England gives hope to all three of the biggest parties.

Labour are the biggest group on the council with 28 seats, followed by the Tories on 23 and the Lib Dems on 9. The authority has no overall control.

Hardly surprising therefore that David Cameron made Bolton one of the first stops on his nationwide campaign tour, calling in to the local bakery, Warburtons, last week and taking questions from workers.

In our Town Hall Debates local voters will put the questions that are on their minds to the leading candidates.

In Bolton West the candidates have told us that, of course, the economy and employment are big issues. But we can also expect questions on education, health and crime, plus possibly immigration, and no doubt a few big surprises.

We do not know what to expect. Nor do the candidates.

That is what makes the debates, and this election, so exciting.

Town Hall Debates will be aired on the BBC News Channel and BBC website at 1200BST on Tuesday, 13 April.


Are you in Bolton West? Do you have a question or comment for the people fighting to be your next MP? Write to us using the form below.

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