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Last Updated: Friday, 6 May, 2005, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Tug-of-war seat returns to Tories
By Neil Leighton
BBC News, Bristol

Mark Harper: photo from Conservative Party
Tory Mark Harper has almost the same majority as Labour's in 2001
It took a long time coming, but in the end the Forest of Dean produced the result many close to the campaign had been expecting.

The Conservatives did win, but the margin - 2,049 votes - was a slim one. Their majority now is almost the same as Labour's was in this seat at the last election.

It was exceedingly close. Early Tory confidence evaporated as the morning progressed and the boxes of counted ballot papers with blue stickers were matched by those of the red of Labour.

Candidates and their supporters nervously paced up and down behind tables of ballot paper counters, and there were rumblings that a recount was on the cards.

But returning officer Laurence Harding was able to make a definitive announcement after the first count, shortly after 0500 BST. Conservative candidate Mark Harper had taken the seat from Labour rival Isabel Owen.

Historical tug-of-war

The closeness of the result comes as no surprise in a seat which has historically been a tug-of-war between the two main parties.

The constituency is one of contrast. Predominantly a rural seat, its economic heritage rooted firmly in coal-mining.

There is staunch old Labour support in the industrial towns of Coleford, Cinderford and Lydney in the heart of the Forest, and dyed-in-the-wool Tories in the chocolate box villages in the fringes.

My pledge is simple. I will represent the people of the Forest of Dean in parliament, not represent parliament in the Forest of Dean
Mark Harper

While the mines have now closed, the working class base of Labour voters is still there, but the countryside Conservatives have now been joined by a new group.

The close proximity of villages in the north and south of the Forest to major areas of employment such as Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bristol, has made the area increasingly attractive to commuters.

Labour's Diana Organ had held the Forest of Dean since 1997. Before that, it was a Conservative seat for 18 years.

Ms Organ's decision to step down at this election and a strong showing by the Conservatives in recent council elections raised early hopes of an election victory for Mr Harper.

'Kept my promise'

He stood as the Conservative candidate in the Forest in the 2001 election, cutting Ms Organ's majority from 6,343.

Addressing a crowd of party activists, press and counters in a committee room at the offices of the Forest of Dean district council in Coleford, Mr Harper said: "Four years ago, I was standing on this spot, I said I would stick with it and I said I would be back. I kept my promise.

"My pledge is simple. I will represent the people of the Forest of Dean in parliament, not represent parliament in the Forest of Dean. You voted for me in the election yesterday, I won't let you down."

A sober Ms Owen congratulated Mr Harper, but said: "Mark, you are borrowing it from us. We won the seat in 1997, Diana has been a fantastic MP. I am sorry she isn't here as the MP again tonight, but she has been a wonderful person to follow."

The Liberal Democrats' Christopher Coleman, who came in third, said: "It has been a very good night for us. Our vote has remained strong here in the Forest of Dean.

"We have picked up a number of key seats and our vote share appears to have gone up across the country."



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