Nationalists confident in close Monklands contest

LABOUR and the Scottish National Party are neck and neck in the battle for the late John Smith's Monklands East seat with four days to go until polling.

A poll in yesterday's Scottish Sunday Mail showed support for Labour up 7 per cent at 45 per cent, with the SNP increasing its share to 43 per cent. The Tories trailed on 4 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats on only 0.6 per cent.

The nationalists, who say they can pull off a remarkable by-election victory on Thursday, welcomed the survey's findings. Kay Ullrich, the party's candidate, said: 'The figures show our support has more than doubled since the last general election. We are challenging hard and gaining ground all the time.'

Labour, which hopes that high-profile visits to the constituency this week by Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett will shore up support for its candidate Helen Liddell, insisted that the poll underestimated its true level of support.

This week, Mrs Ullrich, who has put the allegations of political wrong-doing at Monklands District Council at the centre of her campaign, will step up her attack on the council's Labour leadership, detailing allegations of a 'jobs for the boys racket', discrimination and financial mismanagement. The 'Monklandsgate' scandal has dominated the by-election campaign.

Mrs Liddell, who had hoped to follow John Smith's approach of standing aloof from the allegations of nepotism, discrimination and political corruption, was forced to change tack last week after party workers warned that Labour supporters were threatening to vote for the SNP in protest at the council's record.

She wrote to Jim Brooks, the council's leader, demanding details of spending policies after people living in Airdrie complained that councillors discriminated against the town, lavishing spending on neighbouring Coatbridge. Mrs Liddell said the figures revealed evidence of bias and vowed to take on the council 'to fight to ensure that all the people of Monklands East get a fair deal'. Councillors accused her of bowing to pressure from nationalists.

The rift widened yesterday after Mr Brooks spoke out for the first time about Labour's decision to switch tactics and investigate the council. In an interview with the Independent, Mr Brooks said he was disappointed that Labour was treating the council as 'a whipping boy'.

He was not surprised the nationalists 'were knocking nine bells out of the council' but, he said, 'after John Smith took the lead in being forthright in rejecting the allegations, Labour should be fighting on the real issues of jobs, housing and unemployment'. He dismissed as 'a myth' claims of discrimination in council spending.

Mrs Liddell refused to be drawn on Mr Brooks's comments. She said: 'I am a parliamentary candidate, not a local government candidate.' If elected, she would seek an urgent meeting with Mr Brooks 'to discuss a number of issues we seek to resolve'.

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