Undecided keep parties guessing to the end

By-election: Labour hopes for late swing to overhaul Liberal Democrats. John Rentoul reports
Click to follow
The voters of Littleborough and Saddleworth go to the polls today in the closest fought by-election in this Parliament, as Labour's Phil Woolas launches his final bid to overhaul the Liberal Democrat front-runner, Chris Davies.

But in spite of Mr Woolas's claim that "undecided voters are coming to us" there was little evidence of an electoral earthquake on the streets of the constituency yesterday. In order to overcome an 11-point Liberal Democrat lead among those "certain" to vote in last week's Independent Harris Opinion Poll, Mr Woolas needs to win over the one in five Liberal Democratic voters who said they would vote Labour in a general election, by persuading them the Tories are out of the race.

A straw poll outside the Lo-Cost food store in Littleborough yesterday suggested that message was not getting through. Mr Whittaker, a retired foundry moulder, said: "I'll vote Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out. You can't believe the polls."

Another Labour supporter, shopping with his son, also said he was "fixed" in his intention to vote for Mr Davies.

But Labour MP Ian McCartney, one of the campaign team, claimed that almost every telephone call-back to undecided voters identified by canvassers was bringing converts over.

Meanwhile John Hudson, the Conservative candidate, at his final campaign rally, delighted his supporters by laying claim to the populist mantle of Geoffrey Dickens, whose death in May caused the by-election.

Portraying himself as a commonsense "local man" he said he was confident of victory and had "bet on myself at 20-1. It's a wonderful bet. You can all make a fortune, never mind the share options."

Allegations of "dirty tricks" were again exchanged yesterday by Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and Labour's campaign manager, and Chris Rennard, Liberal Democratic director of campaigns.

Mr Rennard, a veteran of a string of Liberal Democrat by-election victories, defended his attacks on Mr Woolas's identification with "left-wing" causes as spokesman for the GMB union, former president of the National Union of Students and member of the editorial board of Tribune.

Mr Woolas accepted that in the past "many of the things that I did, I didn't actually agree with ... But I am standing as a candidate here for the new Labour Party and I am delighted to be able to do so, because it gives me the opportunity to put my views forward, which I believe are in line with the majority views of people in this constituency."

Mr Mandelson, on the other hand, defended Labour attacks on Mr Davies's pronouncements on the legalisation of cannabis, which conflict with those of Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. "We are only asking for clarification of his public statements as a parliamentary candidate," he said

Leading article, page 16.