Parties fear turn-out may drop below 25%

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The political parties fear the turn-out in Thursday's Ipswich by-election, which clashes with the town's biggest football match for 20 years and the start of late-night Christmas shopping, could plunge below 25 per cent.

They will launch a concerted attempt to get voters to the polls by the late afternoon and have persuaded more than 4,600 electors in the Suffolk town to apply for postal ballots.

The contest is the first test of public opinion since the general election and of Iain Duncan Smith's initial impact as Tory leader. Ipswich has a tradition of bucking political trends.

The by-election, caused by the death last month of the Labour member Jamie Cann, has been overshadowed by the turbulent world situation since 11 September.

To compound the frustration of the rival campaign teams, it coincides with Ipswich Town's Uefa Cup evening match against Inter Milan. More than 20,000 fans will be at the club's Portman Road stadium; thousands more will watch the game in pubs and at home.

Non-football fans will have the rival attraction of the first night of late-night Christmas shopping in the town centre.

Paul West, the Tory candidate, admitted yesterday: "If people haven't voted by 5.30pm, they are unlikely to do so. By then it could be game over." The feared slump might bring turn-out close to the 19.6 per cent level of the 1999 by-election in the safe Labour seat of Leeds Central, the lowest since the Second World War.

Despite visits by Mr Duncan Smith and much of the shadow Cabinet, the Tories have attempted to fight on local issues, including crimeand the shortage of places in popular secondary schools. But there is little sign of the party achieving any of the momentum it requires to overturn Mr Cann's majority of 8,081. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats, who have fought a vigorous campaign inspired by their capture of nearby Colchester in 1997, claim they can beat the Tories into third place.

A spokesman for the Labour candidate Chris Mole, the leader of Suffolk County Council, concedes the biggest danger is failing to rally traditional support. He said: "The Tories are running around stirring up apathy." The party called in activists yesterday for a 16-hour day on the phone and on the doorsteps of the council estates that form the core of Labour's support. Its efforts were diverted by a bizarre dispute over whether a hand-written note of support to Mr Mole from Tony Blair contained spelling mistakes.

The declaration of the result is expected surprisingly late, considering the small numbers likely to vote. The vans carrying the ballot boxes will probably be delayed by the heavy post-match football traffic.

General election 2001: Jamie Cann (Lab) 19,952; Edward Wild (C) 11,871; Terence Gilbert (Lib Dem) 5,904; Others 1,146. Turn-out 38,873 (57%).

Candidates: Paul West (C), Chris Mole (Lab), Tessa Munt (Lib Dem), Dave Cooper (Christian People's Alliance), Peter Leech (Socialist Alliance), John Ramirez (Legalise Cannabis Alliance), Tony Slade (Green), Nicholas Winskill (English Independence), Jonathan Wright (UK Independence Party).