Local Elections: Confident Labour is preening itself for victory: Jonathan Foster reports on a by-election contest lacking the radical fervour of bygone days

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COCKY the cockatoo trilled in astonishment from the back of the room as the Leader of the Opposition totted-up the latest tax rises. That's an extra pounds 349 a year for a family like yours, John Smith told Cocky's owners, the Crow family. 'Phew', Cocky whistled.

Labour's parliamentary by-election campaign in Rotherham is so confident, even an ambush yesterday by the Conservative candidate seemed more half-cocked than cocky. Nick Gibb and seven supporters greeted Mr Smith's arrival at the Crows' with placards deploring 'Jobs for the Boys' in Monklands council, which includes Mr Smith's constituency.

But inside, jobs for their boys - Chris, 18 on polling day, and Richard, 15 - were of more concern to their parents, Barrie and Carole. They, and their enfranchised son, will vote Labour.

Rotherham is another of Labour's heartland seats without much economic lifeblood. Steel and pit closures continue. So far 25,000 jobs have been lost since 1979. Unemployment in some wards is more than 40 per cent. Few voters are sanguine about the future when the very reasons for their town's existence - digging coal and making steel - seem no longer valid. Polling day on 5 May will send Denis McShane to London as Labour MP for Rotherham, though perhaps on a clipped wing and a hopeless prayer.

A former journalist, Mr McShane was the first candidate selected under Labour's new one- member one-vote rules. About half the Rotherham party members did not bother to attend the hustings before casting their postal votes; and there are fewer than 300 party members in a seat with a bedrock of 25,000 votes.

Mr McShane narrowly failed to win selection before the 1992 general election. Union votes narrowly prevailed under the old system, choosing Jimmy Boyce, a former foundry worker. His death at 46 caused the by-election.

Mr Boyce came up through the engineering union's uniquely powerful ranks to a seat on Sheffield City Council. Mr McShane, 45, is the first South Yorkshire Labour candidate selected from outside local unions or councils since the movement for greater constituency party powers began 20 years ago. He claims accounts of local party disenchantment are misleading, citing the support of the steelworkers' union and a busy by- election campaign.

Ray Fletcher, a convert from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, said: 'The Labour council acts as if it owns the place. They take us for granted.' It is a claim repeated at every opportunity by David Wildgoose, the Liberal Democrat candidate, a local man realistic enough to accept that he may not win from a starting point of 12 per cent of the 1992 poll.

'Cracks are starting to show in the monolithic Rotherham Labour Party,' Mr Wildgoose said. 'We are confident we are building a Liberal Democrat presence.' If the Conservative vote collapses on 5 May, Mr Wildgoose may see the most promising gaps appear on the local council. There are three Tory councillors, 63 Labour, and nobody else. In the parliamentary constituency, the Conservatives have 24 per cent of the general election vote to defend. If Labour's aversion to radical policies seems out of tune with the plight of the area, the selection by Rotherham Tories of an unabashed Thatcherite accountant from London as their candidate could appear almost provocative. Mr Gibb claims he is in a two-way fight with Labour, a prediction made, on doorstep evidence, more in hope than expectation.

No wonder Mr Smith and Mr McShane pitied their demonstration and got on with the Crow-and- cockatoo picture opportunity. Mr Crow complained about the 'heating tax'. Mr Smith said that the Tories 'told lies at the last election' about tax.

It was prosaic stuff and there are voters in Rotherham who wish some of the revolutionary passion of old Ebenezer Elliott, the anti- Corn Law rhymer born half a mile from the Crow's house, would rub off on the contemporary Labour party. 'We sleep no more. To arms] away]' he wrote. 'Havoc's torch begins to glow - the ending is begun.' Cocky would have dropped off his perch.

1992 election: J Boyce (Lab) 27,933 (63.9%); S Yorke (Con) 10,372 (23.7%); D Wildgoose (LD) 5,375 (12.7%). Lab maj 17,561. Electorate 60,937. Turnout 71.7%.

(Photograph omitted)