When the pollsters and journalists arrive in Hartlepool, they are going to find Peter Mandelson facing a Tory who could have been deliberately conceived as his polar opposite. Standing against the soft southern spin-master and his 17,500 majority is a local builder with an impeccable Geordie accent whose proud boast is that "there's hardly an aspect of life in Hartlepool my company hasn't touched".
Gus Robinson is a colourful local figure but a late convert to politics. Promoting boxing events, visiting prisoners and youth work seems to have occupied any free time away from the construction business he founded 25 years ago, Gus Robinson Developments. He joined the Conservatives last November.
"I've always had an interest in politics," he explains, "but I was doing other things and serving my time. At 52 years old, I've now got the education and experience to make a contribution." His CV includes six years as an electrician with the merchant navy and an MBA that has left him with a fondness for quoting management gurus.
Robinson's £7m-turnover, 125-strong business started in mechanical and electrical engineering, later following opportunities in housebuilding, the oil sector and repair and maintenance. His philosophy of spotting deals and "moving with the market" is aligned with his Conservativism: individuals and businesses should be free to determine their own destinies, and war should be declared on the red tape that stifles initiative and squeezes margins.
"If you take the bureaucracy out of the system, there's sufficient wealth in the country for all of us."
Robinson's campaign attacks Mandelson at his weakest point by focusing on Hartlepool issues such as crime, council services and job creation. He will be capitalising on his natural assets as a plain-speaking, Bible-quoting, self-made man (he concedes that he hasn't got to grips with the fine detail of the Tory manifesto).
In fact, Robinson seems to have been propelled into politics by a distrust of the New Labour agenda rather than a deep-rooted faith in the Tory alternative. Black humour and an infectious laugh are directed at what he sees as Labour's lightweight "gesture politics": Jack Straw's curfews, CDs for vandals, the people's peers who could have been plucked straight from the quango list. "It's about having a laugh at what this government calls joined-up thinking, and then observing its behaviour."
But most of all, his political philosophy is the true Tory line that the business of government is about the big picture issues of democracy and defence – and incidentally keeping them well out of Brussels' reach – and that the state should regulate as few aspects as possible of personal and business life. From this viewpoint, the father-of-four rejects the "baby bond" policy as an intrusion on parental turf, and criticises the administrative burdens sapping teachers' and nurses' morale.
He believes that construction has found itself a victim of Labour's initiative-itis, for instance in the much-maligned Constructionline scheme. "I paid my £1000 registration and I haven't had a single enquiry. Again, there's no joined-up thinking: the local authorities are tendering work the way they've always done." The quality mark is another initiative that he believes will have little effect while VAT disparities still appeal to the all-too-human desire to get a cheap deal.
As for red tape, he contrasts construction's risk assessments and method statements with the government's apparent failure to adhere to any predetermined bureaucratic plan in its response to the foot-and-mouth crisis: "There were no method statements for wagons leaking blood all over the road. This government burdens us down with regulations, then doesn't follow them when it's doing it itself."
I paid my £1000 Constructionline registration and I haven’t had a single enquiry. There’s no joined-up thinking
Although he concedes that the industry has benefited from Labour's PFI school and hospital building programme, he says feedback from local doctors suggests that Labour has secured the worst of both worlds: poor value for money while private sector initiative has been stifled. "The party has embraced capitalism, but hasn't got the competence to manage it properly."
He has a touching faith that the Conservatives would do better: "The Tories' structure of government and their people were more capable of working with the private sector."
Another area of scepticism is the way central government has interfered in councils' structural plans and housing need projections. Again, he believes that local decisions are best made locally. In Hartlepool, for instance, he urges "adapting buildings for an ageing population instead of building on the green belt" – a neat slogan that nevertheless seems to confuse private and social housing.
But, as Robinson stresses, his job is about championing local issues rather than knowing the ins and outs of every policy. And as a contrast to Mandelson's highly finessed political persona, a bit of roughness round the edges will probably do him no harm at all.
Weybridge should see sparks fly when Tory MP Philip Hammond confronts Jane Briginshaw.
The architect and defender of social housing contesting the seat for Labour is a plain speaker who believes "the Tories still don't care enough about everyday people".
London-born Briginshaw comes from traditional Labour stock. Her father was involved in the UK's main printing union and her mother was a press officer for Unison. The 38-year-old is also a successful businesswoman who left a career at architect Burrell Foley Fischer in London to set up a solo practice, Planalto Architects, two years ago. But architecture is only half the story.
"I have always been torn between architecture and politics," she says.
"In architecture, you can build some lovely houses but you don't get to do enough to improve society."
My priority is a decent home for all. Our sons and daughters cannot afford to live in Surrey so something has to change
Briginshaw joined Labour in 1995 to get involved with the local community, soon becoming a councillor for Wandsworth council and the party's spokesperson for one of her "pet topics" – housing.
"My main priority is a decent home for all, which is a particular issue in Conservative areas – especially Surrey," she says. "At the moment our sons and daughters cannot afford to live here so something has to change."
This concern is carried into her business life, too. The Single Homeless Project, an initiative providing homes for homeless people in the capital, is a major client of her architectural practice.
Unafraid to speak her mind, Briginshaw is creating her own five goals to fight the election rather than using the party's set agenda. She says Labour has left its guidelines for the provision of affordable housing in PPG3 "too open to interpretation". She fully supports London mayor Ken Livingstone's drive for 50% of new build to be affordable and is worried that too many councils are being disingenuous with statistics to appear as if they build more social units than they actually do. She also believes that local councils cannot necessarily be trusted to include adequate amounts of affordable housing in their unitary development plans, and would like to see PPG3 tightened up.
Promoting women's concerns will form another part of Briginshaw's armoury against Hammond. Last year, he hit the headlines after commenting that women doctors do less work than men. Briginshaw says he has shown himself to be out of touch with women voters. For her own part, she would like to see architecture do more for women: "It is not friendly to people with lives or children, because of the long hours and lack of flexibility. These are some of the reasons I set up by myself. I know that there are some initiatives to bring more women into the profession but I can't see that many practices actually want to change."
Briginshaw will also fight the Tories on the issue of race. The Londoner strongly opposes the Conservative's policy on asylum and comments made recently by Tory MPs about ethnic minorities in Britain. She thinks race is a "huge" internal problem in the party.
Briginshaw admits that she has "strong reservations" about one of her own party's initiatives – PFI. She fears that from a design point of view, there can be a loss of quality in the schemes, while safety levels on site could also be compromised. "There are elements of privatisation to the PFI that I don't like. After all, the money that is borrowed to fund the projects must still be paid back. I see a parallel with Railtrack – and look at that mess! The profit factor has to come out of them somewhere – but is this always possible?"
In stalwart Labour tradition, Briginshaw worries that profit seekers will not provide the best working conditions and says she would not work on a the PFI scheme. She questions whether the private sector can deliver more efficiently claiming that there is nothing "naturally" more efficient about private companies – "some firms just cut corners," she says.
For Briginshaw, Labour's greatest achievement in government has been the introduction of the national minimum wage. She was disappointed when the RIBA council voted against the policy last year, saying it could hurt small architectural firms: "If a firm cannot afford the minimum wage then it shouldn't be able to hire – it's as simple as that," she says. "It has transformed the lives of about 1.5 million people, including 1.2 million women," she adds, also drawing attention to Labour's boost to maternity and paternity pay and extension of part-time workers' rights.
Further regulations have to be created: at the moment anybody can say they are a plumber or a carpenter
Briginshaw will have to bang the drum of Labour's successes very loudly to overturn Hammond's 10,000 majority. She recognises that some of her views are "on the borderline" compared with mainstream Labour thinking, but she is determined to fight her battle in her own words.
Tory MP David Curry's Liberal Democrat opponent is a local man who wears more hats than there are flat caps in Yorkshire: he is founder of the World Plumbing Council, chairs several local groups including Ripon Housing Association – and he believes the Conservatives are "disintegrating" as a political party.
Bernard Bateman and politics go back a long way, but he is a relative newcomer to the Liberal Democrats. Born in Bristol to Welsh parents, he was chairman of Monmouthshire Young Conservatives before becoming, at 22, the youngest councillor to be elected to Cardiff council. After moving to Yorkshire 20 years ago, Bateman turned his attention to his sales and marketing career. After a decade with local firm Yorkshire Heating Supplies, he became managing director of Crossley Builders Merchant for a year. He is now a consultant for a pipe manufacturing firm Geberit. As his career progressed, so did his disaffection with the Tories. He explains: "I felt the Tories were moving more and more to the right and I couldn't see Hague as the nation's leader in a month of Sundays."
By 1998, the 57-year-old was ready to jump at his local Lib Dems' invitation. "I was impressed by the way Lib Dem councils were run," he says. "They have a commitment to the community but they understand that you have to pay for these services." For Bateman, Hague's weakness as a leader means that the Lib Dems have an opportunity to become an effective opposition. "There is a real chance for a real change," he says – proving he is not adverse to the odd sound bite.
For Bateman, there was no question of joining Labour. The idea would have been "too alien" to his businessman's mindset. His motto in politics and business is "action not words", which may not score highly for originality but seems to be borne out by his extracurricular activities. He founded trade body the World Plumbing Council 11 years ago, a charity that has funded several water projects in the developing world and works with the World Health Organisation. He is also currently chairman of Ripon YMCA, Ripon Festivals, Ripon Housing Association and Ripon City Partnership, an organisation that promotes local businesses.
Consumer rights are a priority for Bateman, but he feels that the government has failed to protect or extend them. "Cowboy builders are still out there fleecing people – pensioners especially," he says in a voice that still lilts with a West Country accent. Bateman wants to see trading standards given more teeth by the introduction of new consumer legislation. "Further regulations have to be created: at the moment anybody can say they are a plumber or carpenter. It is ridiculous," he says. Part of his campaign will centre on improving the quality of life for senior citizens, so the issue of cowboy builders is particularly pertinent.
The government's quality mark scheme is a "half-baked" response to rogue traders, he says. "It's trying to fix something that doesn't need fixing. Only the good guys are going to sign up to it, and why should they pay up to £500 a year to be in it when they are already paying out to be members of things like the Federation of Master Builders?"
Although he would like to see the government produce more legislation, for him Whitehall is not the place to create a quality scheme. He wants to see bodies with the relevant knowledge, such as the FMB, grouping together to produce an alternative.
He is keen to see something like Germany's system of "masters" set up in this country. In the system, master craftspeople must by law sign off any work done by a tradesperson. Bateman is convinced that the system pushes out rogue traders because it allows work to be controlled.
VAT is another bugbear. He says the rate on refurbishments has done a lot of damage in the industry and should be abolished altogether: "The number of houses being built in this country has dropped so dramatically that every support should be given to repair work."
Beyond tax, he sees construction's skill shortage as the real issue that must be tackled by the government. He thinks the industry is in "such a hell of a mess" that only a significant training drive led by the government will produce results.