Ashdown shrugs off danger of Scargill effect

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The Independent Online

Paddy Ashdown yesterday branded Arthur Scargill and his new political party, which has its first outing in next Thursday's Hemsworth by-election, as a "dangerous irrelevance".

The Liberal Democrat leader was the first of the main party leaders to visit the West Yorkshire constituency. The ultra-safe Labour seat traditionally leaves the Liberal Democrats and the Tories to scrap over second place. However, the equation is complicated by the debut of Mr Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, whose candidate is Brenda Nixon, a miner's wife who established her credentials in the pit closure support groups.

Mr Ashdown insisted the SLP was an irrelevance, but appeared partly to accept Mr Scargill's view that Tony Blair's New Labour may not enjoy the levels of support in Yorkshire that it has in the south of England. Mr Ashdown said Mr Blair's "southern voice" had "no resonance with the fears and wishes of people here", and he described the area as having been "neglected by the Tories and taken for granted by Labour".

Before Mrs Nixon entered the contest, Labour expected no dent in its 22,000 majority. At the last three elections, it has scored around 65 per cent. Publicly, Labour is saying that Mrs Nixon will lose her deposit, but a party source admitted that if the SLP cannot do well in Hemsworth - a former mining area south-east of Wakefield - it "cannot succeed anywhere".

Although the SLP's constitution shuns the support of the hard left by insisting that members cannot belong to other political groups, Socialist Workers Party and Militant activists have been helping it campaign.

Their participation is confined to leaflets and they have been forbidden to discuss issues with voters or distribute their own literature.