Tories fielding 6% fewer candidates

Click to follow
Senior Tories yesterday sought to launch a fightback in their local elections campaign - but were forced to admit that they were fielding 6 per cent fewer candidates than in the last comparable contests, in 1991.

Labour does not officially launch its elections campaign until this morning, but has secured days of media reports of Conservatives abandoning their party banner and standing as independents or under their occupations, contributing to a 1,600-candidate head start enjoyed by Labour before a single vote is cast. There are 843 more Labour candidates than in 1991 and 795 fewer Tories.

The belated Tory effort to up the ante over the numbers came at yesterday's set-piece Conservative Central Office news conference hosted by Jeremy Hanley, the party chairman, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and Eric Pickles, a deputy party chairman.

Mr Hanley spotlighted four areas where Labour was only contesting a fraction of the seats up for election: Berwick (4 out of 28), South Lakeland (4 out of 18), South Cambridgeshire (6 out of 19) and the Isle of Wight (11 out of 48). During prime minister's questions, John Major added Craven (3 out of 12) and Forest Heath (17 out of 25), saying there were "a large number of other illustrations I might give".

Central Office followed that up with more examples, among them: South Herefordshire (0 out of 13), Uttlesford (13 out of 42), Rother (18 out of 45), Horsham (14 out of 43) and New Forest (16 out of 58).

In a reminder that the 4 May contests are a three-way affair, the Liberal Democrats launched a broadside against Labour- controlled local education authorities, accusing them of "imprudent" spending and wrong priorities. Lib-Dem candidates have risen by more than 1,200 to 7,249.

But Labour produced more ammunition against the Tories yesterday with an analysis showing that their candidates outnumbering Tories in the council elections covered by Cabinet ministers' constituencies. Examples include Shepway, covered by the constituency of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, where all 56 of the seats up for election are being contested by Labour, while only 41 candidates are standing as official Conservatives.

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, said Conservative candidates had voted with their feet, resulting in the weakest field of Tory candidates in 20 years. "After a decade and a half of relentless assaults on local councils, the Cabinet now faces the prospect of humiliation in May . . . All of them played the game when it suited them. No jibe against local councillors was too cheap, too nasty, if it helped win a round of applause at a Tory conference."

A defensive Mr Hanley conceded that the percentage of seats being fought by the Tories had dropped from 76 to 70 per cent, blaming "mid-term" blues. "It is not surprising. This is the first time for 25 years that these sort of elections have come in mid-term.

"In any mid-term between two general elections, the party of the day tends to field fewer candidates because the party of the day is taking tough decisions which are needed to help the nation recover from the problems the Government of the day has faced, and oppositions don't."