The Truth

Just like old times: Labour plays toff and family cards in fight to save seat .........

added 14/5/08

from The Guardian
Michael White
Wednesday May 14 2008

Gwyneth Dunwoody's colourful past is casting a large shadow over Gordon Brown's uncertain future.

At the Crewe byelection, it suits all sides to stress what a great constituency MP she was. Labour says it because her daughter, Tamsin Dunwoody, was hastily selected as the party's candidate and is busy canvassing voters to show she is a chip off the old block. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say it to reinforce the point that voters supported the late MP, not the party of which she was a member.

They dismiss Dunwoody's 49-year-old daughter, saying she is an outsider who lives in Wales and highlight that she was briefly a member of the Welsh assembly. "We have a hereditary monarchy, we don't have hereditary MPs," said David Cameron during one of four whistlestop visits the Tory leader is making to support Edward Timpson, a soft-spoken family lawyer fighting his first election.

Timpson is almost local - he lives 13 miles away. And he is well-to-do, a scion of the former shoe manufacturing family whose shops (shoes mended, keys cut) still dot Cheshire. So Labour is running an old-fashioned "anti-toff" campaign in core wards, leaflets showing Timpson's large house, activists stalking him in top hats and tails. Visiting Tory MPs despise the tactic ("so much for New Labour"). Labour calls it "a bit of fun" with a serious point. Does Timpson understand ordinary people's problems? Glossy Tory leaflets about Crewe's Leighton hospital, work-life balance and the cost of living insist he does.

The Tories are throwing resources at the campaign. One Crewe shopkeeper said: "Gwyneth Dunwoody's daughter might get the sympathy vote, but the Conservatives are hard at it. I have never seen so many celebrity MPs."

Voters are fresh from voting Conservative in the Crewe and Nantwich slice of East Cheshire council on May 1, by 45% to 29% and 19% over Labour and the Lib Dems respectively, and will pick their next MP on a mixture of local and national issues on May 22. Post office closures, Crewe's stalled town centre regeneration plans, the 10p tax row - Tamsin Dunwoody spoke to Alistair Darling before yesterday's Treasury rethink - drunken teenage rowdies, the 4,000 jobs at Bentley Motors, they all matter. Voters want another local champion. But some are focused on the big picture and are cross with Gordon Brown.

"I only drive 5,000 miles a year. But the budget means my car tax will go up from 210 to 450 next year," an angry Labour defector in St John's ward tells the Lib Dems' new candidate, Elizabeth Shenton. He points to his Vauxhall in the drive. She marks him down as a Probable but that's optimistic: this byelection looks like a Lab-Con showdown.

Some voters are already showing irritation at more canvassing, more political leaflets through the door. But one thing they agree on is that Dunwoody's 7,078 majority in 2005 reflected widespread affection and admiration for their MP, way above and beyond party. It took the Guardian all day to find a critic, a Tory lady roughly the self-styled battleaxe's own age (77), who called the late MP a bully.

Another older woman's reminiscence of the late MP was more typical: "Well, she fought for everything. Free buses, transport; she really fought for Crewe.

"I met her daughter the other day; I shook her hand. I wish I'd known who it was at the time."

As she canvassed with Harriet Harman on Monday, Tamsin Dunwoody got "sorry about your mother" sympathy from voters. "I come from a long line of very tough women," she told them. The sympathy vote is central to Labour's strategy. It is a gamble which yesterday's 10p tax fix may reinforce - and may not. Many Crewe voters have been affected.

Graduate Chris Gregory works in a gift shop and does not earn enough to pay off his student debts. "The debt is hanging over me all the time," he says. "It is a big issue for me but I don't know what the political parties can do to tackle it. I know Labour said they will compensate people for the 10p tax but I am not sure how."

Labour party HQ calculated that a micro-campaign of barely a fortnight is the best way to save the seat, or get the pain over quickly. The prime minister is expected to stay away, but he will be watching closely. Defeat will be seen as another nail in his political coffin, fresh evidence that his government is doomed. The Conservatives last took a byelection seat off Labour in 1982, the year before Margaret Thatcher's 143-seat landslide.

Both sides agree that the Mail on Sunday's ICM poll in Crewe - showing a 43/39/16% Tory lead over Labour and Lib Dems - is only a rough guide to how tight the result may be.

"It's volatile - it seems to move one way then the other," a local reporter says.

On Monday, Cameron was ambushed outside Crewe police station by hooded Labour activists carrying "Hug a Hoodie" posters. He beat a tactical retreat and did his TV interviews elsewhere before heading for Tory Nantwich.

In Pepper Street, Gwyneth Dunwoody's favourite market, Cameron followed in Harman's footsteps.

The crowd was bigger, the patter smoother. Jacket off, hand resting comfortably on voters' shoulders, he sounded like Tony Blair in his prime.

At the greengrocer's, where staff had discussed rising prices with Harman, someone says "She was more in-depth" after Cameron sweeps out. But many are delighted to see him. "Don't forget to vote and bring a friend," he says. Both sides will fight for every last one.