Labour forced into U-turn over Monklands 'corruption': SNP triumphant as poll rival bows to pressure over council 'bias', writes John Arlidge

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THE Scottish National Party described Labour as 'on the run' in the Monklands East by-election campaign after the Labour candidate bowed to pressure and announced yesterday that she was investigating the local council.

Helen Liddell, who began the campaign by dismissing allegations of impropriety at Monklands District Council as 'tittle tattle', said that she had written to the chief executive asking for 'a detailed explanation' of 'apparent disparities' in council expenditure. She said she was concerned at claims of bias and discrimination in council spending and wanted 'to get to the bottom of the allegations'.

Mrs Liddell was speaking after Kay Ullrich, the SNP candidate, published a dossier detailing claims that the council's Labour leaders, based in Coatbridge 10 miles east of Glasgow, had spent 10 times more in the town than in neighbouring Airdrie. Mrs Ullrich said Mrs Liddell's announcement showed that Labour was panicking.

'Mrs Liddell has come a long way in a few days,' Mrs Ullrich said. 'She started the campaign by defending Monklands District Council. Then she described the council as 'good in parts'. Now, it appears she is finding out what others have suspected all along - that the council is bad in parts, if not in whole.'

Labour, which hoped to continue John Smith's approach of standing aloof from the allegations of council corruption, nepotism and sectarianism that dogged the former Labour leader, decided to tackle the issue after former Labour supporters said they were considering voting for the SNP in protest against the council.

Party officials denied yesterday that Mrs Liddell's decision to investigate council spending was a tardy response to a controversy which has been raging for three years.

The Scottish Labour Party's general secretary, Jack McConnell, said it had no legal right to influence or investigate the council's spending policies. But a parliamentary candidate was entitled to demand answers.

The SNP, seeking to overturn Mr Smith's 15,000-vote majority, yesterday continued to put the so- called 'Monklandsgate' scandal at the centre of its campaign. Mrs Ullrich urged voters to 'pass democratic judgement' on the council's 'Mafia' leaders. An SNP victory would, she said, compel Labour to 'clean up' the council.

'After an SNP win, Labour would blame the tin-pot dictators on the council for the party's defeat and they would be forced to take action. The council's house of cards would come tumbling down; the books would be opened.'

Monklands District Council last night rejected claims of a spending bias. A spokesman said the chief executive, Maurice Hart, would reply to Mrs Liddell 'as soon as possible'. Polling takes place next Thursday.

1992 election: J Smith (Lab) 22,266 (61.3 per cent); J Wright (SNP) 6,554 (18 per cent); S Walters (Con) 5,830 (16 per cent); P Ross (LD) 1,679 (4.6 per cent). Lab maj 15,712. Electorate 48,391. Turnout 75.1 per cent.

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