Legacy of hate proves the big issue

War of the roses: Labour looks to topple Lib-Dem axis with Tories in Cyril Smith's Lancashire stronghold
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The Independent Online
The legs may be giving out beneath "Big" Cyril Smith but the old populist Behemoth has loomed formidably on enough Rochdale doorsteps in the local elections campaign to ensure that Gracie Fields's home town alleys are still contested in shrill disputes between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

It is 30 years since Sir Cyril, then a councillor, quit Labour and returned after 16 years' absence to the Liberals. By 1972, he had assembled a powerful local machine, barged Labour out of the parliamentary seat and begun an enduring Lib-Lab pact in the town; they agree they hate one another's guts.

Labour has subsequently enjoyed episodes of town hall power, but none since 1992, when Sir Cyril retired from the Commons and his successor, Liz Lynne, assumed his role as the Liberal Democrat most sceptical of Labour.

Little wonder because the anti-Labour votes of affluent and working class Lancastrian Tories have been an important component of Rochdale Liberal Democrat success.

Another has been coalition. Conservative councillors are junior partners with the Liberal Democrats in an informal alliance controlling the out- going council with a six-seat majority over Labour, the largest party.

Paddy Ashdown is known to find the arrangement discordant with the party's national position of refusing to countenance supporting Conservatives in a hung parliament.

The Lib-Dem/Tory administration's centralisation of power and comparatively low spend on education seem even more at odds with Mr Ashdown and the spirit of the Blair times.

Labour's hunch is that Rochdale will follow neighbouring Oldham back to where it belongs, in a Labour-controlled cotton belt.

Jim Dobbin, leader of a Labour group defending only three seats, is "pretty well sure" of gaining the extra five needed to take over all control. A good result on Thursday could also provide the impetus to ditch Ms Lynne at the general election.

"The present bad feeling goes back to Cyril Smith's decision to leave the Labour Party," Mr Dobbin said. "He set up the networks across the town which built his power base; he created the hatred.

"It would take many years for the two parties to come together because Liberal Democrats here seem to be different from elsewhere. But there's a feeling now that Cyril Smith's power is in decline. Liz Lynne uses the networks, but the view in Rochdale seems to be gaining ground that the Liberal Democrats have little or no direction, while Labour has got rid of its posturing and become more sensible."

Ms Lynne's position is further threatened by boundary changes to the Rochdale seat, and national policies which Sir Cyril perceives as divisive. "The appeal of Liberalism hasn't diminished, but the stance of the party does concern me," he said.

"If there was any coalition with Labour, a third of the membership would leave. We've got these southerners running the party, who are lovely people but run the party on an anti-Tory basis which will land them in very big trouble in the North, where we have to deal with the reality of the Labour Party."

Sir Cyril's election senses, still acute in his 50th year on the community stump, tell him the Tories are in the deepest trouble. "I'm extremely active in this election, as far as my legs will allow me. It's certainly on the knife edge. I'm not absolutely sure Labour will take control but, if they do, they'll gain the bulk of the seats from the Tories," Sir Cyril said.

New Labour has meant some unfamiliar tactics in Rochdale, with vituperative pamphlets flying through the wards. Sir Cyril claimed he had never seen vilification on the scale Labour has allegedly published, but anti-personnel pamphlets are as much in the Rochdale Liberal tradition as Cobden and Bright.

Could Labour be learning from the great community campaigner? If so, Sir Cyril's knees may not be the only things giving out beneath Rochdale Liberal Democrats.

Rochdale council

Seats are divided as follows:

Labour 26

Liberal Democrat 22

Conservative 11

Independent 1