Labour activists fear SNP win in Smith seat

LABOUR activists in John Smith's Monklands East constituency warned yesterday that the party's decision to impose an outside candidate to fight the forthcoming by-election could hand victory to the Scottish National Party.

Constituency supporters, who are due to meet tonight to elect a candidate, are angry that leaders of the Scottish Labour Party, who drew up the final shortlist, rejected local officials.

They accused the leadership of 'punishing' local activists for their decision to speak out over allegations of corruption, nepotism and sectarianism, which have dogged the Labour-controlled Monklands District Council.

Last week Labour's Scottish national selection committee passed over three local nominees: Jim Logue and Peter Sullivan, both councillors, and Eddie Rooney, an activist, who have campaigned against the council's 'mafia' leaders - in favour of three candidates from outside the constituency.

Helen Liddell, the Scottish party's former general secretary, who lives in Renfrewshire, is the favourite to win tonight's vote, beating off challenges from Tom McCabe, leader of Hamilton District Council and Ian Smart, a solicitor from Cumbernauld. In the Eighties, Mrs Liddell, 44, worked as director of personnel and public affairs for the disgraced publisher Robert Maxwell and is the author of Elite, a political thriller in which a female politician with 'a shrewd and ruthless mind' uses her 'image and rhetoric to gather a huge popular following'.

Publicly, local officials say they will support whoever is elected, but privately they express 'grave anxiety' that voters in the constituency - which lies 10 miles east of Glasgow and was held by Mr Smith with a majority of 15,712 at the 1992 election - will reject the Labour candidate in favour of a local Scottish National Party figure.

One leading activist said: 'People think the leadership have insulted residents of Monklands by excluding local officials from the shortlist. Many councillors and party members have worked hard to expose the rotten practices of the 'mafia', in an effort to re-establish Labour's credibility in Lanarkshire. Now, it seems, the party leadership is taking its revenge, punishing them for airing Labour's political dirty laundry in public.

'The selection decision has completely soured the atmosphere in the area. Two weeks ago after John Smith's death even nationalists said they were considering voting Labour as a mark of respect to a good constituency MP. Now, Labour voters say they will either spoil their ballot papers or vote for the SNP. If Helen Liddell is elected, there is a real chance that Monklands will be transformed from a safe Labour seat to a marginal one or, worse, that we will lose outright to the SNP.'

The nationalists made an important political breakthrough in last month's regional elections when they won the Airdrie South seat, which lies in Monklands East and party managers say they are confident they can mount a strong challenge to Labour.

Jack McConnell, general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, yesterday denied that local officials were rejected because they had criticised council leaders. 'Our sole concern was to guarantee effective representation for the people of Monklands. We have every confidence that the shortlist will do just that,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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