Labour machine minces hapless Tories

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The Independent Online
The contrast between Labour's lean, mean election machine and the laid- back amateurism of the Conservatives in Wirral South can be measured in tea cups.

It became a habit for Les Byrom, the hapless Conservative candidate, to attend "house-meetings" with visiting Cabinet ministers. But it soon emerged that the invited guests were the party faithful, and that men such as the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, and the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, were wasting time talking to the converted over tea and biscuits.

Over at Labour campaign headquarters, in a converted supermarket, the professionalism, sense of purpose and direction were visibly humming under the overall command of Ian McCartney, MP for Makerfield, a leading member of John Prescott's campaign team.

Mr McCartney was joined by David Hanson, MP for Delyn, a regional party official, David Evans, and a team that united party officials from around the country with local volunteers and party members in a tightly-run unit.

Labour no longer flies by the seat of its pants. Little, if anything, is left to chance and no detail is too small.

When Tony Blair visited the Arrowe Park Hospital with the party candidate, Ben Chapman, last Monday, there was a fat, fact-packed media briefing paper on the problems faced by the hospital trust, and even a man carrying a cardboard sheath of four golfing umbrellas to protect the leader and his entourage in case it rained.

This was all in stark contrast to the shambles of the Michael Foot campaign in 1983. He wandered around the country with the air of a man who was not sure which town he was in, or why he was there in the first place.

In Wirral, the Conservatives could not even give an assurance the by-election would even take place on 27 February, because the Prime Minister was dithering over calling a 10 April general election.

They spent much of their time banging on about Labour's threat to local grammar schools, when Labour had identified other issues, such as health and crime, as more important in the mind of the electorate.

Yet when Mr Dorrell and the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, went to Wirral, they talked about grammar schools instead of their own areas of responsibility - health and crime.

Labour, which had carried out detailed surveys of the voters already knew that the voters' concerns coincided with the party's five pledges: on hospital waiting lists; class sizes; youth unemployment; fast-track punishment for young offenders; tax, inflation and interest rates.

Those were the concerns that were addressed, with those voters identified as "switchers" - people who were thinking, many for the first time in their lives, of moving from Tory to Labour.

As much effort was devoted to ensuring that Labour's core vote also turned out on the council estates. If the New Labour switchers were the icing, the old Labour was the cake.

Mr Chapman, the new Labour MP, now has the daunting task of trying to maintain the momentum for another nine weeks. Having achieved the impossible, a swing of 17 per cent, on Thursday, he now needs the miracle of retaining the seat in May.

The odds on a Labour general election victory were shortened by the bookmakers William Hill in the wake of the Wirral South by-election victory yesterday, moving from 1-4, to 2-9, and Conservative odds lengthening from 5-2 to 11-4. The Liberal Democrats remained at 500-1.

Coral's odds for a Labour win were 1-6, with the Tories at 7-2, and the Liberal Democrats at 200-1, but two punters were said to have placed cash bets of pounds 5,000, in Worcester, and pounds 2,000, in High Wycombe, on the Tories winning the highest number of seats.



Ben Chapman (Lab) 22,767 53%)

Les Byrom (C) 14,879 (34%)

Flo Clucas (Lib Dem) 4,357 (10%)

Lab Maj 7,888 (17% swing C to Lab)

Electorate 60,512

Turnout 43,328 (73%)

1992: C 25,590 (50.8%); majority 8,183 (16.3%); Lab 17,407 (34.6%); Lib Dem 6,581 (13.1%)

Other candidates

Samuelson Anthony (SCPTC) 124

Frederick Asbury (TAG UK) 40

Harold Bence (Co Director) 184

Michael Cullen (Socialist Lab) 156

Philip Gott (Dis C) 148

Geoffrey Mead (Nat Law) 52

Richard North (UK Ind) 410

Colin Palmer (21st Cent) 44 Roger Taylor (Ind) 132