Blair's local hero takes cue in Pennine poll drama

Paul Routledge on Labour's hopes of a box-office hit in Littleborough
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The Independent Online
IT is a perfect backdrop for a television series. The rugged western shoulder of the Pennines falls through plunging valleys lined with weavers' cottages to the red-brick terraces and old cotton mills huddled on the plain below.

How much more original it is than the chocolate-box scenery of Heartbeat, or the played-out charms of Last of the Summer Wine country. Littleborough and Saddleworth cries out for a human-interest drama.

Perhaps it should be the story of a local boy made good who wins a scholarship to Manchester University and goes to work for an award-winning TV news programme - but throws it all up to work for t'union movement he loves. He then returns to his homeland in triumph with his gorgeous wife and baby son as the firebrand, tough-but-fair New Labour MP.

Actually, shooting is already under way. Phil Woolas, Labour candidate in Thursday's critical by-election, is being marketed as a Local Hero figure. Peter Mandelson, the Svengali of the studios, is in the director's chair. He predicts a box-office hit, confiding: "I am responsible for the business side of it."

But this is serious business. Can Tony Blair's New Labour come from third place to steal this constituency from the Tories, who have held it since it was created in 1983, and from the Liberal Democrats, who finished second on a steadily rising vote at the past three elections? The polls are beginning to suggest it is not so far-fetched an idea.

An Independent poll three days ago put Labour only six points behind the Liberal Democrats, and Shadow Cabinet members are jostling for air time to say: "We are now in striking distance of beating them."

Mr Woolas, aged 35, might be regarded as fitting for the TVrole, being handsome in a raffish Italianate kind of way. He is the head of communications for the GMB union, and despite the bonhomie exuded at briefings, Mr Mandelson and he were not exactly on the same side last time out, over John Smith's plans for "one member, one vote" in 1993.

There has been some repackaging in the interim. Today, Mr Woolas is presented as a practising Anglican, a regular churchgoer who "believes in strong family values and responsible, disciplined upbringing for the young". He was a Young Farmer in the Pennine village of Worsthorne just outside the constituency and he wants to "come home to speak up for local people in the corridors of power".

Mr Woolas has been working to destabilise the front-running Liberal Democrat candidate Chris Davies, who has been portrayed as soft on cannabis and a supporter of rave parties yet still able to find time to increase tax by 5p in the pound.

Mr Davies, a bus-company communications manager who, if he looked any more like Sebastian Coe, would have Tory MPs queuing up to put down questions in his name, retaliated with a scabrous flyer. There is nothing like a by-election to prepare a politician for the serious vituperation of Westminster. He accused Mr Woolas of wanting to keep Clause IV, of supporting Arthur Scargill, of advocating "forms of violence" and - horror of horrors - being not a local man at all, but one born in Scunthorpe and now resident in one of the few posh bits of Brentford, west London.

Pounding the wet streets of suburban Milnrow, where the Lancashire-hacienda bungalow styles are enough to strain anyone's temper, he snapped: "There is a limit to how much you can take."

And give, it seems. The "dirt-file" on Mr Woolas, secretly drawn up over several weeks rather than as an immediate response, reveals that in 1985 he did say in his NUS presidential address: "Propagate the new wave of student radicalism. If it takes a phone call to get something done - use a phone. If it takes a flour bomb - well, use one."

Once elected, he did hand over a cheque for pounds 1,000 to the miners, the proceeds of a sponsored march by students. And the awful truth of his Lincolnshire origins has been uncovered by the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, which tracked down his granny Madge, his auntie Ann and "the rest of the Woolas clan". Was there ever such sleaze? Send for Lord Nolan.

John Hudson, the Conservative candidate, aged 55, is adopting an Olympian aloofness from the mud-wrestling. A genuine pillar of the community for whom nobody has an unkind word, he has shopped around, politically speaking, before finding a home. Indeed, he was once a Labour candidate for the old urban district council. He rejects opinion-poll evidence that puts him in third place, and insists that he can still succeed the late Geoffrey Dickens MP, for whom he was agent for the past five years. "I am confident of getting our people to the polls, and on that basis I predict we will win," he said.

Behind the flying dirt, which will probably send some voters back into the arms of the Conservatives, lies the possibility that Labour might just pull it off. One day, maybe, trippers will come to gawp at "Woolas Country", drawn by the lure of seeing where the TV series all happened. The very mill in Delph where he schemed and plotted. The actual stone shop in Littleborough where his volunteers gathered. Perhaps even a side- trip to the hairdresser in Manchester where he is taken at high speed. It must be some crimper.

However, not even Mr Mandelson is willing to predict a possible Labour majority, and thereby must hang a tale.