Labour bandwagon rolling to victory

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Tony Blair's decision to send his son to a grant-maintained school produced the only wobble yesterday in Labour's steady march to a landslide victory in the Dudley West by-election.

The Labour candidate, Ian Pearson, 35, had no ready answer to whether Mr Blair was right to send his child to an "opt out'' school. One reason for his reticence is the fact that there are three grant-maintained schools in Dudley West and they are popularwith parents.

Mr Pearson, joint chief executive of the West Midlands Enterprise Board, said he understood why parents sent their children to grant-maintained schools. Was he sympathetic but against them? "You're putting words in my mouth ... I am sympathetic to parents who want to do the best for their children ..." The candidate's minder, Jeff Rooker, MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, intervened to clarify the position."What he is saying is that shouldn't be done at the expense of children in other schools."

The Tories have accused Mr Pearson of running a silent campaign but a nervous candidate, largely untested, will not dent Labour's majority in the poll on Thursday. Even the landlord at the pub chosen as the Tory lunchtime headquarters was a Tory defector. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said the unpopularity of the Government was due to people not focusing on the damage which would be done by Labour's policies.

Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, went ten-pin bowling for the cameras. A minder said: "For God's sake, don't get a strike ... we don't support them in the new Labour Party."

Labour had planned a pub lunch in the Crooked House, a local tourist attraction, but with the "photo opportunity" in mind, dropped the idea. They lunched instead at the Pig on the Wall.

The Chancellor's mini-Budget putting 1p on a pint of beer was "the last nail in the coffin" for the Government, said Trevor Bradburn, landlord of the Crown. He has supported the Tories in all general elections since they won Dudley West in 1979, but he will be voting Labour on Thursday.

He described John Major's leadership as "total rubbish" and said he would not vote Tory at the general election. "All they are going to do is come out with a lot of promises I don't think they will keep. After so many years, it's time that other parties had a crack of the whip," he said.

After a pub lunch - delayed by a power failure, which the staff put down to the resident ghost - Graham Postles, the Conservative candidate, met another disaffected Tory when he canvassed a row of grey council houses, some bought under the right-to-buy scheme, on the outskirts of Sedgley.

Two films crews, four photographers and a gaggle of journalists were on hand to hear Margaret Merrick, of Ettymore Close, tell Mr Postles he would not get her vote, although she had voted Conservative in the past. As he left in the rain, she said: "They have taken so many u-turns, they don't know where they are going. He hasn't got my support ... poor lad."