Labour claims playing to win gave party a moral victory

Littleborough & Saddleworth: Liberal Democrats defy national political gravity
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As the Liberal Democrats and Labour headed for a close finish in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election last night, the Labour team was already claiming a "moral victory".

An unexpected star of the campaign, Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool and a Tony Blair ally, ran Labour's team after the party sought to seize the initiative within weeks of the death in May of the Tory incumbent, Geoffrey Dickens. The Liberal Democrats' Chris Davies was in the unfamiliar position of front runner throughout.

Labour, in the equally unfamiliar position of challenging from third place at the last election, ran an aggressive campaign which caused some unease within the party.

None of this can detract, however, from the Liberal Democrats' success in defying national political gravity by building a steady increase on its general election share of the vote in the constituency of 36 per cent. This was at a time when John Major's "put up or shut up" challenge had won back national support from the Liberal Democrats.

That has been a tribute as much as anything to a long-held strategy of targeting Littleborough and Saddleworth for the next general election. Charges of cynicism and hypocrisy, levelled anonymously against Mr Mandelson, were rejected by Mr Blair yesterday. "We play to win. It means being serious. It means realising that politics is not some game for chattering-class dinner parties."

Labour's strategy was devised long before its candidate, Phil Woolas, was selected. The candidate would be the "strong choice", standing for Mr Blair's "New Labour" against the Liberal, playing on some local voters' fears that Mr Davies' party had "weird ideas". Mr Davies advocated reform of the drugs laws and spoke at the 1994 Liberal Democrat conference in favour of an inquiry into the decriminalisation of cannabis, a motion which angered Paddy Ashdown.

Mr Mandelson demanded to know if Mr Davies stood by his pronouncements. Mr Davies said he was now opposed to the legalisation of drugs, and accused Labour of "playing petty party politics".

A Liberal Democrat spokesman accepted yesterday that their media strategy had been "passive". Instead, however, the party concentrated on reaching voters face-to-face and tried to reap the harvest of a decade's pavement politics. Not only was the party well entrenched in local government, but it had persuaded Labour voters in increasing numbers in three successive general elections to vote tactically.

Labour's greatest challenge was to try and reverse this tactical behaviour. The critical evidence the party needed - an Independent Harris poll showing the Tories well back in third place - came only a week ago. Nevertheless, that poll included the important prediction that among those certain to vote, the Liberal Democrats had a lead of 11 per cent.