Hunting ban may cost Tories a seat

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The Independent Online
LABOUR COULD snatch an unexpected victory in next week's by-election in Eddisbury, shows an opinion poll published today.

The survey, done after Tony Blair pledged to press ahead with a ban on hunting, puts Labour on 42 per cent, the Conservatives on 38 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent.

Until now, the Tories have been favourites to win next Thursday's contest, caused by the appointment of Sir Alastair Goodlad, the senior Tory MP, as British High Commissioner to Australia. He had a majority of 1,185 over Labour at the 1997 general election.

Labour has played down its prospects in the by-election, arguing it would be difficult to improve on the 9.6 per cent swing when Tony Blair won his landslide victory two years ago.

The poll of 500 voters in the Cheshire constituency was done by Market & Opinion Research International (Mori) on Tuesday for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The group supports a ban on fox-hunting, a key issue in the by-election campaign. The survey suggests Mr Blair's pledge to legislate for a ban before the next general election boosted Labour's prospects in Eddisbury, finding 66 per cent agreed with the Prime Minister, and 17 per cent did not.

The poll also revealed 40 per cent of local voters would be less likely to support a candidate who adopted a high-profile position in favour of fox- hunting. This suggests Labour may be able to win over undecided voters before next Thursday. It has highlighted the links between senior local Tories and the Cheshire Hunt, and the pro-hunting views of Stephen O'Brien, the Tory candidate.

If the poll findings are accurate, William Hague may regret his attack on the proposed ban when he campaigned in Eddisbury this week. He said: "The people of Cheshire can send a clear signal to Tony Blair: stop attacking the countryside, stop trying to destroy the rural way of life."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, launched a petition in favour of a ban in Eddisbury. Today Labour will step up its campaign when Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, visits the constituency.

IFAW's sister organisation, the Political Animal Lobby, announced a pounds 1m donation to Labour before the last general election and has given pounds 100,000 since. Ministers deny Tory claims that the gifts prompted Mr Blair's legislation pledge, but a leaked memo by George Howarth, the Home Office minister, warned that the anti-hunting group would turn its fire on the Government unless there was swift action.