SNP opens campaign with attack on Labour: Nationalists target John Smith's former seat with call for inquiry into council 'corruption'. John Arlidge reports

Click to follow
CAMPAIGNING in the Monklands East by-election began yesterday with the Scottish National Party calling for an inquiry into the scandal-ridden local Labour council.

The nationalists set the tone for the most keenly-contested by-election in Scotland since Jim Sillars won Glasgow Govan for the party in 1988 by claiming Labour was unfit to represent the constituency because Monklands councillors, supported by the local Labour party, had abused their powers.

The SNP is seeking to complete 'a hat-trick of victories' in the by- election on 30 June. Earlier this week the party recorded its best- ever election result, winning one- third of the Scottish vote in the European elections and capturing its second European seat.

Party managers, hoping for a repeat of the by-election successes of the 1960s and 1970s, conceded yesterday that overturning John Smith's 15,000 majority would be difficult. But they insisted they had 'a good fighting chance'.

Kay Ullrich, the SNP candidate, said: 'We won our first seat in the Monklands area in the regional elections in May and we will build on that success. Winning Monk lands will be a steep climb - we need a 20 per cent swing - but after our record-breaking performance in the European poll, we have the wind at our backs.'

Mrs Ullrich, a 51-year-old social worker from Kilmarnock, promised to put the issue of Labour's stewardship of Monklands council at the centre of the SNP's campaign. She accused Labour of ignoring evidence of corruption, nepotism and sectarianism and urged Helen Liddell, the Labour candidate, to launch a full inquiry into the running of the council.

'Voters know that the Labour administration in Monklands has been a disgrace and that the party has failed to clean up its backyard. It's time they started for the sake of the people of Monklands,' she said.

Labour angrily rejected Mrs Ullrich's claims and accused the SNP of 'playing gutter politics'. Mrs Liddell, 43, former aide of disgraced publisher Robert Maxwell, insisted the recommendations of a 1992 internal Labour inquiry had been implemented and there was no evidence of malpractice at the council.

'Mrs Ullrich makes allegations but that is all they are - allegations. Unless she has evidence to support her claims, she should shut-up. Unlike me, Mrs Ullrich is new to the Monklands area and it is clear that she is still finding her feet. She will soon realise the true situation at the council.'

Mrs Liddell rejected suggestions that the SNP bandwagon would sweep from victory in the North-east Scotland Euro-constituency last week to win in Monklands, 10 miles east of Glasgow. 'The SNP succeeded in the North-east by winning the votes of disaffected Tartan Tories,' she said.

'The Labour vote increased in the south and central belt and if the nationalists think they can sneak in under the red Labour blanket in Monklands, they are very much mistaken.'

Mrs Liddell said she felt 'great sadness' at defending the seat John Smith held for a quarter of a century. 'I am not John Smith; no one can take his place. The dignified people of Monklands still mourn his loss and I am confident that they will return me to Westminster so that I can fight for them, if necessary, to my dying breath.'

All the four main political parties say that jobs are top of the political agenda in the former mining area around the towns of Airdrie and Coatbridge. Susan Bell, the Conservative candidate, promised to 'build on the Tories' enterprise culture' to create new employment opportunities. Mrs Bell, 47, a businesswoman from Biggar, conceded that with support for Scots Tories at a record low of 14 per cent the by-election had come at a 'difficult time'.

However, she insisted, there were 'no no-go areas for the Conservatives'.

Stephen Gallagher, 26, the Liberal Democrat candidate, who described himself as a male 'rose among the thorns' of the three women candidates, said that Labour was the favourite to hold the seat. But he insisted that the Liberal Democrats would seek to maximise their share of the vote after the party won the support of just 7 per cent of the electorate north of the border in the European elections.

(Photograph omitted)