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Politics: Invisible man hoping for by-election win

Labour's candidate in tomorrow's Paisley South by-election has been dubbed the "invisible man". Stephen Goodwin finds that the low-key campaign appears to be working.

"Where is Blair?" demanded a flyer put out by the Conservatives yesterday. And where too was Douglas Alexander, the squeaky clean candidate chosen by Labour to defend the seat in sleaze-dogged Paisley?

To the frustration of his political opponents, particular the Scottish National Party as the main challenger, Labour strategists have kept Mr Alexander well out of the limelight. The customary practice of daily press conferences was dropped, sparing him embarrassing questions about Labour's dirty political record in Renfrewshire, and contact on the streets or in community halls has been carefully controlled.

"Labour's campaign has been so low key as to be just not there," said Sheila Laidlaw, the Tory candidate, as opposition parties spent yesterday railing the tactics. "Douglas Alexander told us from the outset that he intended fighting this by-election on Labour's record over their first six months in government. Instead he has been conspicuous by his silence.

"He may well be about to pay dearly for this carefully calculated ploy, for the message we are getting on the doorsteps is that the voters are sick and tired of the contempt they are being shown by Mr Alexander and his political masters," Mrs Laidlaw said.

The SNP's Ian Blackford accused Mr Alexander of being "frightened" of meeting voters while Eileen McCartin, the Liberal Democrat candidate, said Labour was "hiding behind the Representation of the People Act". If broadcasters had no film of Mr Alexander they could not show other candidates who had faced the cameras, she said.

However, the indications are Mr Alexander will hold the seat, albeit by a much smaller margin than the 12,000-vote majority enjoyed by Gordon McMaster, whose suicide caused the by-election. A low turnout is likely.

Tony Blair had been expected to lend his weight to the campaign in the final days but party managers consider it no longer necessary. William Hague, Paddy Ashdown and Alex Salmond have all visited Paisley. The Tories tried to exploit the Prime Minister's absence, saying he had promised to visit every by-election but was "too embarrassed by Labour's sleaze".

A further step was taken yesterday to neutralise the sleaze factor when the Labour group on Renfrewshire Council moved to strip suspended party member Harry Revie of committee posts worth pounds 18,000 a year in allowances.

Mr Alexander, in reply to one of four questions allowed the press when he met pensioners in a village hall, said it showed Labour taking firm action when serious allegations were made.

Following the script, he said Labour was winning the by-election on a positive agenda about health, education and jobs. As for the claims of his opponents that he was a "party lackey" and showing contempt for the voters, there were "desperate words from desperate s."