Lib Dems claim Labour's negative tactics backfired

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Labour mounted one of the most aggressive by-election campaigns in recent political history in an effort to avert a catastrophic defeat in the party's former bastion of Birmingham Hodge Hill.

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Labour mounted one of the most aggressive by-election campaigns in recent political history in an effort to avert a catastrophic defeat in the party's former bastion of Birmingham Hodge Hill.

But the Liberal Democrats, who slashed Labour's majority from 11,618 to just 460, claimed yesterday that the negative tactics had backfired by highlighting the Government's fears it could lose the seat.

The operation was masterminded by the Labour MPs Tom Watson and Fraser Kemp, two of the party's wiliest political streetfighters. They singled out Nicola Davies, the Liberal Democrat candidate, as a weak link in their rivals' campaign.

In an area where the siting of mobile phone masts is a contentious issue, Labour campaign literature repeatedly reminded voters of her job as a lobbyist for the mobile phone industry, dubbing her "Nokia Davies". Even as she spoke after the by-election result was announced yesterday, opponents mocked her by setting off their mobile phone ring-tones. With law and order the top issue in Hodge Hill, Labour portrayed the Liberal Democrats as soft on crime, drugs and prostitution. And it tailored its message to different parts of the constituency - a leaflet attacking the party over asylum policies was distributed to largely white areas and not Muslim districts.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, said the party had no regrets over a campaign style which echoed traditional Liberal Democrat tactics. He said: "Tom Watson and Fraser Kemp did a very good job in taking on the Liberal Democrats, who are schooled in the art of taking no prisoners in by-elections."

But Matthew Green, the Liberal Democrat MP for Ludlow, said: "The negativeness of the campaign switched the electorate off. It was counterproductive for Labour because it made clear we were the main challengers and made Labour appear in an unpleasant light."

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