Judo brown belt challenges hometown boy in the fight for Mandelson's former title

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Indy Politics

The Owton Manor sequence dancing group is ideal canvassing territory for Iain Wright, the young councillor who wants to prove that he won't repeat the outgoing Hartlepool MP's fabled failure to distinguish between guacamole and mushy peas.

The Owton Manor sequence dancing group is ideal canvassing territory for Iain Wright, the young councillor who wants to prove that he won't repeat the outgoing Hartlepool MP's fabled failure to distinguish between guacamole and mushy peas.

The dancers meet in a former medical centre where Mr Wright was brought to be weighed as a baby and is across the road from Gloria's hairdressers, where his mother used to work - a perfect place to parade his strongest suit: the real Hartlepool roots that Mr Mandelson lacked.

Yet there was a distinct whiff of sabotage amid the gentle strains of "Viva Espana" and "Yellow Submarine" as he arrived for his second visit in three weeks. Some "unexpected competition" had materialised, Mr Wright, defending the seat for Labour, was discreetly informed. An unanticipated rival dance session across town had reduced the attendance here to a paltry dozen. He circulated briefly and left without a dance.

The Liberal Democrats insisted this was not a political conspiracy, though such tactics would not have been out of keeping with the vitriolic nature of this by-election campaign.

Such is the enmity between the Labour and Liberal Democrat camps, whose campaign offices are on the same street, that police had to be called last month when Mr Wright's team gatecrashed his rival's national pensions policy launch.

Further dirty tricks, enough to make the Prince of Darkness blush, have included anti-Liberal Democrat placards (featuring dead birds of freedom) hung opposite their office, and black propaganda denigrating the character of the Liberal Democrat candidate, Jody Dunn. An extract from her daily internet diary was published in which "Jody Come Lately" - as Labour like to call her - described meeting voters in one street who were all "either drunk, flanked by an angry dog or undressed".

The tactics illustrate the threat that Ms Dunn, 35, poses to Labour's 40-year hold on the seat. Four months after the Liberal Democrats' seizure of Newcastle council (after another 40-year Labour run), the party is ebullient about the chances of Ms Dunn, a barrister and mother-of-four, repeating the by-election successes of Brent East and Leicester South.

Ms Dunn's clipped accent may not be true Hartlepool like Mr Wright's - who describes his mother and grandmother as "mam" and "nana" - but her background is certainly more exotic than her adversary's accountancy career with Touche Deloitte. She is the first fluent Finnish speaker, Finnish radio DJ and judo brown belt to stand for Parliament in Hartlepool, and her seven years as a family law barrister in child abuse and custody cases on the North-east circuit suggest some knowledge of local life.

Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrat campaign strategist behind the party's successes in Brent East and Leicester South, concedes that her good looks do not appear to be doing much harm either. "She's - how shall we say - strikingly different and it helps with recognition on the streets," he said.

The town's elected mayor, Stuart Drummond - whose elevation to office two years ago in the guise of the local football club mascot, "H'Angus the Monkey", proves that anything can happen in Hartlepool elections - claims that Labour has pinched several of his ideas, including the "From the town, for the town" slogan he was elected on. "People are sick of the back-biting and sick of the candidates saying how lousy the town is," Mr Drummond said.

An NOP poll for Channel 4 News suggests that the Liberal Democrats (22 per cent) pose a bigger threat to Labour than the Conservatives (11 per cent), who are represented by Jeremy Middleton, a wealthy businessman who made his money by floating his 12-year-old Newcastle plumbing company.

The Conservatives' pursuit of an anti-Liberal Democrat crime agenda on Thursday proved how much they fear a humiliating third - or even fourth, if UKIP performs. Their cause was not helped when their 2001 candidate recently admitted they could not win. At the Owton Manor dance, there was evidence that this port has grown to like having a charismatic MP to put it on the map.

"People knocked Mandelson and he should have been here more but at least everyone knew where he was from," said Margaret Scott, 66. "The Liberals certainly got a lot of signs up and that makes a change. Maybe they'll get in this time."

David Royal, 74, agreed that "the days of your father telling you to put a cross by Labour" were over. "It's down to what they talk about. I'm still undecided," he said.

Labour's decision to time the election at the end of its party conference on 30 September has handed Ms Dunn a good canvassing weapon - the promise that she can be "kicked out" if she has not performed by the time of the general election.

But she has considerable ground to make up, according to the NOP poll, which placed Mr Wright on a comfortable 53 per cent. Lord Rennard, who is pursuing every Tory voter he can find to achieve the 22 per cent swing from Labour he needs, claims his party has more support at this stage than it did in either Brent or Leicester.

In the final reckoning, Mr Wright's most useful attribute might be an experience of close finishes. He won his seat on the local council in 2001 by a margin of three votes.