The Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election descended into acrimony last night as Labour accused the Liberal Democrats of launching personal attacks on their candidate in a last ditch attempt to win the seat.
Labour condemned Liberal Democrat leaflets suggesting that Labour's candidate, Debbie Abrahams, had misled voters at the last general election about where she lived. The Liberal Democrats responded that they were merely highlighting the fact that Ms Abrahams had given two "obviously contradictory" statements at different elections. There was also concern within the Labour camp that Jack Straw's criticism of the Pakistani community at the weekend for not being "more open" about the sexual grooming of young white girls had become an electoral factor among Muslim voters.
Labour canvassers said they had overheard a Liberal Democrat supporter highlighting Mr Straw's remarks to voters. The issue was also raised at a hustings held at a community centre in the Glodwick area of the former mill town, which is home to many voters of Pakistani descent and was the scene of severe rioting in 2001.
Ms Abrahams did not attend the hustings. Organisers said she had been invited, but Labour said no invitation had been received. Muslims make up around 10 per cent of the electorate.
The event's organiser, Imran Shah of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, said both Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates had turned up and taken the opportunity to condemn Mr Straw's remarks. "People will be more inclined to think that Labour doesn't really care about the Muslim community," said Mr Shah.
Local Labour councillor Fida Hussain, who represents the Werneth ward which is part of Oldham West, conceded there was some dismay over Mr Straw's views. "I have heard that Mr Straw's comments are being taken very seriously in the community. They haven't been helpful to the Labour Party," he said.
The issue of race in the campaign is particularly sensitive to both sides in this election – as it formed the basis of the complaint against Phil Woolas which resulted in him being thrown out as an MP. He was found guilty of attacking his Liberal Democrat opponent Elwyn Watkins's personal conduct and character with false statements that he courted Muslim extremists who had advocated violence against the Labour MP.
A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said they had not raised the issue of Mr Straw's comments as part of their campaign – but it was possible that their canvassers had been responding to concerns already within the community. "Our position is that grooming is wrong whatever the background of those people involved," said a spokesman.
Much of the recent discourse has revolved around how "local" the candidates are. Ms Abrahams was targeted in Liberal Democrat election leaflets after apparently giving an address in neighbouring Colne Valley when she fought the seat in May.
Labour insists she has lived in Newhey, part of Oldham East and Saddleworth, for the past 25 years. She has also faced allegations that she quit her post as head of Rochdale Primary Care Trust over Labour's plans to increase private healthcare provision.
The constituency's former MP, Phil Woolas, broke his silence yesterday to suggest he thought Labour would easily hold the seat. "The feedback I have had is that people in the constituency did not like two judges coming up from London and telling them who to vote for," he said. "What happened to me will work in Labour's favour."
Eric Illsley to quit Parliament
The disgraced MP Eric Illsley is to quit the Commons, triggering a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Barnsley Central.
Illsley pleaded guilty this week to dishonestly claiming more than £14,000 in parliamentary expenses and will be sentenced next month. If he is jailed for less than a year, he could theoretically continue as an MP, drawing a salary. But David Cameron and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, urged him to go voluntarily.
Illsley announced yesterday he had decided to resign before he is sentenced. "I would like to apologise... for the distress and embarrassment caused by my actions that I deeply, deeply regret. I have begun to wind down my parliamentary office, following which I will resign from Parliament," he said.
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