Fiona and Bill take a tilt at status quo

For the past 18 years, Preston has been a Labour safe seat – but it was not always the case.

In the 1970s the then town had two extremely marginal seats, Preston North and Preston South, which regularly swung between Labour and the Conservatives with extremely small majorities.

In 1979, Tory Robert Atkins beat Labour's Ronald Atkins by 29 votes in the North while Labour's Stan Thorne won South by 621.

Boundary changes in the 1980s removed the northern suburbs to Ribble Valley and the southern ones to a newly formed South Ribble constituency.

This created a safe Labour seat in Preston which was held by staunch left-winger, Audrey Wise, for 13 years, until her death in 2000.

The succession was fought between her daughter, Valerie, and former MEP, Mark Hendrick, who won the consequent by-election on a turn-out of less than 30%.

The city itself is undergoing something of a revival thanks to regeneration money and the 2000 city status.

It is on the brink of a 500m investment from the Duke of Westminster's Grosvenor Estates which would see the bus station bulldozed and the Tithebarn area regenerated.

The delayed planning application is due to be with Preston Council later this year.

The economy is still based on traditional manufacturing and engineering with Alstom and BAE Systems employing thousands of Preston-based workers. There are also 21% of workers in the wholesale and retail sectors.

There is an expanding ethnic minority population, now 13% Asian origin, that is becoming more important politically and an increasing number of students who have contributed to voter apathy.

Last time out, Mark Hendrick scooped 57% of the vote, beating his Tory rival by 34%.

Former electronics lecturer Mr Hendrick, 46, entered the Commons on November 24, 2000, when three separate by-elections were held across the country.

Since his election and re-election in 2001, many of his Commons interventions have been on European matters where he has taken the opportunity to attack Conservative policy.

He has also been very strongly in favour of introducing foundation hospitals and student top-up fees.

The former engineer has also voted in favour of the Iraq war and the fox hunting ban.

Hoping to improve on the 23% of the vote taken by the Tories in 2001, is Manchester-born Fiona Bryce, 27, a graduate from the University of Wales.

After a year in PR, she started working for Laurence Robertson MP, the Conservative spokesman on energy, consumer affairs and competition.

She was elected to Merton Borough Council in 2002, attracting a 12% swing from Labour to the Conservatives and quickly set to work opposing the councils plans to cut the budget of both youth services and voluntary organisations.

Fiona, who has a home on Preston Dock, has enjoyed a lifelong interest in religions and in her spare time enjoys golf, tennis and horse riding.

After his party switch earlier this year, Bill Parkinson is hoping to attract voters as a Liberal Democrat councillor.

The youngest Lancashire county councillor at 38, Mr Parkinson is married to Spanish teacher Pilar Maria Sanz-Morano.

Mr Parkinson was educated in Lancashire before going to Ely College in Cambridge to read law.

A former businessman and now a full-time councillor, he has been involved in the Axe The Tax campaign, his party's fight to change the council tax system.

Also in the running is Preston councillor Michael Lavalette, standing for the Respect-Unity Coalition.

The Liverpool University lecturer in social policy was born in Scotland and educated at the universities of Paisley and Glasgow.

His PhD was on child labour in Britain and he continues to research child labour across the globe.

He has written several books about protests and collective action including one about the long-running Liverpool dock dispute called Solidarity on the Waterfront: The First Year of the Liverpool Lock-Out.

A Preston City councillor for two years, he was central to the organisation of Preston's fund-raising day for the Tsunami appeal. And a late entry to the parliamentary race is Ellen Boardman from the UK Independence Party.

e-mail: emma.broom@lep.co.uk