Ashdown rocked by defection on eve of poll

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The Independent Online
LABOUR was last night celebrating the spectacular eve-of-poll defection of the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Newham North East by-election. Alec Kellaway said Labour 'has now become a social democrat party'.

Mr Kellaway, the sole Liberal Democrat councillor in the east London borough, was paraded yesterday by Labour at a bizarre news conference after stunning his local supporters by announcing he was rejoining the party 18 hours before polling opens. He was for ten years a Labour Party activist before joining the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s.

The move was an acute embarrassment for Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, on the eve of the European elections and five by-elections. It also raises the ominous possibility for the Liberal Democrats that Tony Blair's probable election as Labour leader, confirming the dominance of the party's modernising wing, could tempt back into the Labour fold more of those who deserted it for the SDP. Mr Ashdown, taken aback by the defection, said as he arrived at a by-election rally in Eastleigh that it was a 'personal, puzzling and sad decision'.

Liberal Democrats sought to limit the damage by insisting the defection would have few ramifications outside Newham. But Mr Kellaway lost no time in acknowledging that he had been influenced by Mr Blair's being 'about to become leader'. Mr Blair, he said, was not 'some media invention, but representative of the mainstream of Labour'.

Mr Blair, who now looks increasingly likely to face challenges from both Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, is expected to announce this week that Jack Straw, Labour environment spokesman, will be his campaign manager.

Mr Kellaway said that it was 'fairer to party workers if I declare my position now, rather than after the close of polls.' He told reporters: 'Put yourself in my position. If you're a social democrat party and there's a main social democratic party, what would you do?'

The move came as a Mori poll for the Times showed Labour's European election support at 51 per cent, the Tories at 23 and the Liberal Democrats, who hope to gain at least two seats for the first time, at 20. That could in theory leave the Tories with as few as four European seats, but Conservative strategists are convinced the poll underestimates their support.

Mr Kellaway, clearly an individualist and a professed 'Christian socialist', cannot legally withdraw his candidacy and he said yesterday that it would be up to his supporters to decide how to vote. But he said that 'it was becoming increasingly clear there was virtually no division on policy' between the two Opposition parties and that his own election address had been 'virtually identical' to that of the Labour candidate.

In potentially the most damaging section of his three-page statement Mr Kellaway said that he had asked fellow Liberal Democrats in vain how they would fight Labour if they had the same policies and that some had claimed he should portray Labour as 'corrupt and incompetent'. That was 'patently not the case in Newham, nor do the voters believe it'.

The setback for Mr Ashdown was underlined by a message from the Liberal Democrat leader on that same address saying that he had 'known Mr Kellaway for many years', that Labour had 'taken areas like Newham for granted for too long' and that Mr Kellaway would 'make an excellent MP'.

Mr Kellaway's defection was swiftly seized on by the Tories last night. Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative chairman, said it demonstrated that 'there is no real difference between the Labour Party and the Liberal Party.'

In terms calculated to maximise the Tory vote today, Sir Norman insisted: 'The jump from Liberal to Labour is a very short step. Tomorrow voters should ask themselves this question: 'Is your Liberal candidate yet another Labour politician in disguise?' '

Seeking to make the best of the incident last night, Mr Ashdown redrafted his speech in Eastleigh - where his party is confident of winning - to insist the Liberal Democrats were 'a political world away from Labour'.

Mr Prescott, Labour employment spokesman, was recovering in University College Hospital yesterday after being slightly injured in a road accident. Mr Prescott, 56, hit his head when a taxi in which he was travelling collided with a car in central London.