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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 July, 2004, 01:36 GMT 02:36 UK
Gloves off in Leicester South
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter on the Leicester South campaign trail

With less than a week to go before polling day in the Leicester South by-election, the insults are flying thick and fast.

Margaret Hodge
Labour is focusing on local services

Lib Dem candidate Parmjit Singh Gill is caricatured by Labour as "Mr Cuts," holding a giant pair of scissors - a reference to the city council's budget problems.

But Mr Gill has got a barb of his own.

His Labour opponent Sir Peter Soulsby, he says with contempt, is "Tony Blair's man".

The jibe - which not so long ago would have been a compliment - is repeated in Mr Gill's election literature, alongside pictures of Mr Blair shaking hands with George Bush.

Leicester South is one of the most ethnically diverse constituencies in the country, with a 19% Muslim population.

And Mr Gill, a Leicester-born Sikh, believes he has struck a chord with many voters.

Closely-fought

"People are saying you cannot trust Tony Blair if you cannot trust him on Iraq," he says, as he shelters from the rain in a deserted cafe in the city's Victoria Park.

Labour is defending a 13,000 majority in Leicester South, in a contest prompted by the death of popular MP Jim Marshall.

The Lib Dems, who came third in 2001, are odds on favourite at the bookies to win on Thursday.

But all three parties are throwing everything they have at this by-election and Birmingham Hodge Hill, which takes place on the same day.

Muslims are sick of their vote being taken for granted by Labour
Zulfi Bukhari. MPAC
Labour and the Conservatives can ill afford a repeat of last year's Brent East debacle, while the Lib Dems are under pressure to pull off another famous victory.

The Tories are bussing in dozens of MPs and party workers every day from their London HQ in Smith Square.

Meanwhile, Labour claims it has succeeded in switching the debate from Iraq to matters closer to home.

"The Lib Dems started their campaign very much focusing their campaign on Iraq and trust. They have had to shift their ground completely.

"They are now incredibly defensive on their own record on the city council," Sir Peter says.

Promises

The Lib Dems took charge of Leicester council last year, in coalition with the Tories, unseating former council leader Sir Peter in the process.

Lib Dem election leaflet
Barbed: Lib Dem election leaflet
Labour claims the party has made savage cuts in services - and threatened to close a popular local community centre - despite a 10% increase in the council tax.

"There is an awareness that they made all sorts of promises 12 months ago that have not been kept," says Sir Peter, on a visit to a local Sure Start scheme, in the impoverished St Matthews area of the city.

Children's Minister Margaret Hodge, on hand to lend moral support, says Labour is "quietly confident but far from complacent".

On Iraq, Sir Peter says he is against the war, and according to his press spokesman, he even marched against it.

Two-horse race?

This is a gift for seasoned by-election campaigner Lib Dem MP Don Foster.

"In Parmjit, you have a candidate who is proud to stand as a member of Charles Kennedy's team, contrasted with a candidate who seems to wish to disavow the party he seeks to represent," he says, taking a sip from his mug of tea.

There has been more activity in a day than in a week and a half in Brent East
Tory worker

The Lib Dems claim it is a straight two-horse race between them and Labour.

Labour is also studiously ignoring the Tory challenge, no doubt hoping Michael Howard's troops will soak up enough Lib Dem votes to save their skin.

The Tories, for their part, insist Leicester South is a three-horse race and it is "too close to call".

But party workers argue third place with a significant increase in the share of the vote -say 7 % or 8% - would be a good result for them.

'Chalk and cheese'

Their tactic is to fight for every vote, targeting areas - such as the large council estates in the south of the constituency - where previously they may have feared to tread.

"There has been more activity in a day than in a week and a half in Brent East," says one party official, "It is like chalk and cheese."

The party - boosted by UKIP's decision not to stand - has reportedly ordered every one of its MP to spend at least 10 hours campaigning in the constituency. By Thursday 140 MPs will have made the trip.

The party's chief whip has set up an office in the cramped rooms above a woman's clothes shop serving as campaign HQ.

'Fearsome Tory machine'

This, says Tory co-chairman, Liam Fox, is the shape of things to come for Tory by-election campaigns.

Don Foster
Don Foster: Seasoned campaigner
"20 years ago we had a by-election machine other parties were terrified of," he tells BBC News Online, "We want to get back to that."

The Tory candidate, Chris Heaton-Harris, a football referee and MEP, says he is running a more positive campaign, focusing on law and order, than the other two parties.

Curiously, he is styled "Chris 4 Leicester" on election posters ("more demotic, less of a mouthful," explains one visiting MP) just as Sir Peter is plain old Peter and Mr Gill appears in some leaflets minus his Singh.

In a close-run contest, such things matter.

Diversity

Daventry MP Tim Boswell, in Leicester South for the duration of the campaign, offers to give BBC News Online a tour of the constituency, promising "extraordinary" scenes of cultural diversity and inner-city deprivation.

"There must be no "no go" areas for the party," he says as we veer between leafy suburbs and bleak council estates, trying to scare up a bit of local colour.

One of the many hats Mr Boswell wears is that of Tories' diversity chief. His mission, he says, is to do something "about the ignorance Middle England has about this country".

The charm offensive appears to have worked on at least one group of young Muslims.

'Sick of Labour'

Web-based pressure group MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Committee) backed the Lib Dems in Brent East but have switched horses for Leicester South and are campaigning for the Tories.

They figure this is the best way to give Tony Blair a bloody nose.

The big issue in the mosques, they argue, is not so much Iraq, but the creation of a Palestinian state.

Spokesman Zulfi Bukhari says they were impressed by the Tory candidate's commitment to this cause, adding: "Muslims are sick of their vote being taken for granted by Labour."

But whether they will persuade enough voters to make an impact on Leicester South remains to be seen.




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