John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, yesterday launched a fight-back against internal discontent, as Mo Mowlam, a member of the Shadow Cabinet, challenged the Tory party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, to a television debate over his attacks on Labour councils.
Ms Mowlam accused Dr Mawhinney of "playing chicken" for refusing to take part in a debate on Tyne Tees Television during his two-day tour of the North-east. Dr Mawhinney, whose desertion of Peterborough for the safer Tory seat of Cambridgeshire North West was confirmed yesterday, is hoping to repeat his propaganda coup in appearing to force the suspension last week of Walsall Labour Party simply by visiting the town.
But Ms Mowlam dismissed as "old, tired and rehashed" Mr Mawhinney's attack on Newcastle and South Tyneside councils, where Labour has conducted its own investigations into assorted irregularities.
Meanwhile, Phil Woolas, the Labour candidate in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election whose allegedly "amoral" campaign triggered a week of internal party criticism of Tony Blair, yesterday proclaimed his "success" which had "redrawn the electoral map of Britain".
Backed by Mr Prescott, Mr Woolas, who came within 2,000 votes of the Liberal Democrat victor, rejected accusations of dirty tricks and defended his campaign's attack on Liberal Democrat pledges to put up taxes. "We said we would not increase taxes for low and middle income families. Now that is the whole basis of [shadow Chancellor] Gordon Brown's strategy for the past two years - anyone who criticises that is criticising the whole of Labour's policy," he said. Bryan Gould, a former shadow Cabinet member, and Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, complained that Mr Woolas attacked his opponent for wanting to raise taxes to increase spending on education.
Mr Woolas, who yesterday addressed the Fabian Society in London, responded: "What should we be saying? That we're going to increase taxes? To say I was at fault is to say the party's policy is wrong."
Mr Prescott, who was responsible for the by-election campaign, defends it vigorously with the full authority of the Labour leader, pointing out that it was the party's best by-election result from being in third place. "I make no apologies for fighting to win the by-election, and nearly pulling off a historic victory. Let's not have any Liberal Democrat humbug," he said.
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