Memories linger of big upset in ultra-safe seat

Birmingham Hodge Hill

It is a long way for Liam Byrne from Millbank and Downing Street to the run-down estates, boarded-up pubs and discount shops of Washwood Heath, Alum Rock and Shard End.

But the reverberations from a bitter by-election contest faced by the former Blair adviser in a wedge-shaped slice of Birmingham, a week today, will be felt all the way back to the party's high command in London.

Mr Byrne's shoulders carry a heavy burden, as the battle for Birmingham Hodge Hill is one that Labour simply cannot afford to lose. In the second safest Labour seat in England's second city, almost two-thirds of its electors supported the Government at the last election. If Mr Byrne is not returned to Westminster - and by a comfortable margin - hundreds of Labour MPs who believed they had a seat for life will nervously eye their own majorities.

Still smarting from its defeat in last September's Brent East by-election, a seat with a similar demographic profile, Labour is running an aggressive campaign. The party has branded the Liberal Democrat candidate Nicola Davies, who is regarded as its main threat, as an apologist for the mobile-phone industry - a controversial issue locally - and soft on crime.

Mr Byrne is fighting a local campaign, and Tony Blair does not appear on his leaflets. Like his opponents he has focused instead on the crime, drug-dealing, graffiti and vandalism that scars the constituency. He is also playing on the popularity of retiring MP Terry Davis, who is stepping down after 25 years to become secretary general of the Council of Europe.

A now-familiar Liberal Democrat by-election hit-squad, operating out of a hastily converted DVD rental shop, is trying to turn the Labour nightmare of defeat into at least a possibility. The scale of the task is daunting, as the party captured just 8 per cent of the Hodge Hill vote at the last election. But it climbed a similar electoral mountain in Brent East and is encouraged by a strong performance in last month's Birmingham City Council elections.

The Tories, historically able to count on a strong working-class vote in Birmingham, are fighting a desperate battle to avoid coming an embarrassing third. Yesterday they insisted the contest was a two-horse race between them and Labour.

If Labour's Liam Byrne allows such previously strong Labour territory to slip from his grasp, it will reawaken grim memories. In 1977, after Roy Jenkins, the Labour incumbent in Hodge Hill's predecessor seat, Stechford, quit to become president of the European Commission in Brussels, Labour sensationally lost the seat in the resulting by-election and two years later was toppled from power at Westminster.

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