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CORBY, England (Reuters) - The Conservatives are expected to lose the bellwether seat of Corby in a parliamentary by-election on Thursday as voters register a protest against austerity and economic malaise.
Corby has voted for the winning party in every general election since 1983, making the one-off vote, triggered by the resignation of Conservative lawmaker and chick-lit author Louise Mensch, an important political marker.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives are defending a slim 3.6 percentage point majority from the last election in 2010 over a Labour opposition who have surged ahead in national opinion polls.
Commentators say a defeat, although insignificant in parliamentary numbers, could indicate more than just the traditional mid-term dip for the ruling party, and betray an underlying disillusionment that Cameron may struggle to overcome in the run-up to the 2015 election.
"I feel totally let down by the government," Judy Harper, 67, who works part-time in a clothes shop in the village of Oundle, told Reuters. She said she would vote Conservative as she always did, but that she felt it was a wasted vote.
"I reckon Andy Sawford (the Labour candidate) will win it."
Cameron and his Lib Dem coalition partners promised to deal with Britain's record budget deficit and trigger a sustained economic recovery when they took over from Labour after the last full parliamentary election in 2010.
But the sluggishness of the recovery and sweeping tax rises and spending cuts have hit households hard.
The seat of Corby and East Northamptonshire, divided between a working-class city centre that leans towards Labour and the staunchly Conservative affluent villages that surround it, has felt its share of pain.
The area has struggled to recover from the closure of a big steelworks 34 years ago, with youth unemployment and repossession of homes well above the national average.
Recent investment has funded a new library and swimming pool but the main shopping area is full of pound shops, pawnbrokers and job centres.
A poll commissioned by Conservative Party grandee Michael Ashcroft last month put Labour on course for a big win in Corby with a 22-point lead over the Conservatives.
The pollsters said the swing would translate into a significant overall majority for Labour if repeated at a general election.
Taking a quick break from the campaign trail in a café in Oundle, a village of thatched roofs built alongside one of Britain's oldest private schools, Conservative candidate Christine Emmett said she remained optimistic about the vote.
She batted aside questions about what the impact of a defeat would be for the party, saying: "I don't believe we're going to lose."
At the busy campaign centre for the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Corby city centre, candidate Margot Parker said she was taking advantage of disenchantment with the big parties.
"People are telling me: ‘It doesn't matter who we vote for, we get the same'," she said.
It is the first time UKIP have stood in Corby and pundits will watch closely to see what damage they do to the Conservative vote.
"We've started from nothing here and whatever we've built up will be phenomenal. It's a rolling ball, we've gathered momentum," Parker said. "It could be a good mid-term kicking for the coalition."
Editing by Matt Falloon and Kevin Liffey