Already dubbed the District Line election because it runs through all three constituencies, the contests in Dagenham, Barking and Newham North-East are likely to rub further salt into John Major's electoral wounds on 9 June, the same day as elections for the European Parliament.
The Conservatives, who did not win a single seat in the three constituencies in the local elections, could finish in third place behind the Liberal Democrats. The only real danger to Labour is a low turnout of the kind which slashed their majority in the Rotherham by-election.
The three by-elections follow the deaths of the Labour MPs Ron Leighton (Newham North-East) and Jo Richardson (Barking), together with the decision of Bryan Gould, the party's maverick former frontbencher, to quit politics and his Dagenham seat.
In Barking, the party's candidate is Margaret Hodge, 49, who became a controversial figure as leader of the left-wing dominated Islington Borough Council in north London during the 1980s. She inherits a comfortable majority of 6,268 from Ms Richardson.
Labour's contingent of women MPs should be increased at Dagenham where the candidate is Judith Church, 40, an official with the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union. The Labour majority is 6,733 in a seat where the Ford car plant has traditionally been the biggest employer. Newham North-East has a Labour majority of 9,986, the largest of the three constituences, and is certain to ensure a comfortable win for Stephen Timms, 38, a company manager and, until recently, Newham Borough Council leader.
At the launch of Labour's campaign yesterday the party served notice that it will make unemployment one of the main issues in the District Line election. Frank Dobson, shadow Minister for London, said: 'Taking these three seats together, unemployment has more than doubled since 1989. In November 1989, there were 6,561 people without a job. Now there are 15,589. That is an increase of 137 per cent.'
The Tories, who also launched their campaign yesterday, are targeting what they regard as the Labour establishment running the two borough councils in the area. In particular, they criticise them for the standard of education. Their candidates are Theresa May, 37, head of European affairs for a banking and building societies organisation, in Barking; James Fairrie , 46, a former Army officer, in Dagenham; and Philip Hammond, 38, a company director, in Newham North-East.
The Liberal Democrats, who won more than 20 per cent of the local election vote in Barking, winning one seat, will officially launch their campaign today. Their candidates are Garry White, 21, unemployed, in Barking; Peter Dunphy, 27, a recruitment consultant, in Dagenham; and Alec Kellaway, 40, an economist and researcher, in Newham North-East.
The far-right British National Party is contesting Dagenham, where the candidate will be its leader John Tyndall. When nominations close today it is possible there may be a National Front candidate in Barking.
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