Relief for Kennedy in Cheadle

The Liberal Democrats hold Cheadle, a surge to Labour in council by-elections, a solitary success for the Tories in Essex. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the first polls since the London bombs.

The Liberal Democrats hold Cheadle, a surge to Labour in council by-elections, a solitary success for the Tories in Essex. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the first polls since the London bombs.

THE Conservatives pledged to "out Liberal Democrat" the Lib Dems in Cheadle, the mega rich Greater Manchester commuter belt town in the shadow of the Peak District.

But once again, it all fell apart for the Tories, who saw a Lib Dem majority of 4,020 fall slightly to 3,657 in a parliamentary seat the Conservatives held in 1992 by more than 16,000 votes and the Lib Dems gained in 2001 by just 33 votes..

The by-election, the first since the General Election, was caused by the death from cancer of MP Patsy Calton. The Conservatives believed they could win by adopting the Lib Dem tactics of saturating the seat with activists and adopting pavement politics.

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Michael Howard visited the seat twice. Perhaps that was the problem - the party could not appeal to some of the most affluent voters in the UK because it is in a directionless drift with Mr Howard about to step down.

It is a remarkable statistic that the Conservatives have not gained a seat at a by-election for more than 20 years. Now that they're locked into a long running leadership contest which will not be settled until November, Cheadle obviously decided to leave them to their own little world of lamentations.

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Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy has much to thank the electors of Cheadle. Had the Tories won, the doubts and question marks over his own leadership, festering among some of his MPs at Westminster, would have burst open like a gaping sore.

No wonder he said immediately after the result was declared yesterday morning: "It is to the voters of Cheadle that I express my great gratitude for their continued confidence in the Liberal Democrat cause, they know that we do not let them down.

"It is further proof that British politics is now three party politics - with the Lib Dems as a growing force for the future.'

Despite the slight fall in the Lib Dem majority, there was only a swing of 0.63% from the Conservatives to Liberal Democrats. Both parties increased their share of the vote, while Labour lost its deposit.

Cheadle is a seat the Conservatives have to win at a General Election if they are to have any hope of forming a Government.

If they can't win in Cheadle, they'll have little or no chance in the inner cities, suburban and urban divisions, the rolling uplands of the West Country, Scotland and Wales, from where, somehow, they have to gain 140 seats from Labour and the Lib Dems for even a narrow victory next time.

Whoever wins the Tory leadership contest has to reach out and appeal to the millions of former Tories who in the last three elections have shown little inclination to return to the fold.

Tory MPs must decide in the next few months which of the would-be leaders has the appeal, and can develop the policies, that anti-Labour voters want.

They can't afford to get wrong again.

MEANWHILE, is a batch of local authority by-elections, there was a massive show of support for Labour, especially in Derby, Leicester and Leytonstone in the London borough of Waltham Forest - cities with large Asian communities.

The politics of hate and fear were trounced in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. Labour's candidate Alok Agrawal coasted home in the Becontree ward, nearly 800 ahead of the British National Party after the far right group caused revulsion by using a picture of the Tavistock Square bombed bus in a campaign leaflet.

In the City of Derby, Labour gained a seat from the Liberal Democrats to give the party overall control, while in Lincolnshire it gained a seat from the Tories in Boston to make it the largest party on the borough council.

Elsewhere, the Tories lost a seat to the Lib Dems in North Devon and to an Independent in South Northamptonshire.

The compensation came in the mid Essex district of Uttlesford where Michael Miller scored a landslide victory to capture Great Dunmow South from the Liberal Democrats.

On the face of it, a 20.6% swing to the Tories is an extraordinary result and sticks out like a sore thumb on a disappointing night.

However, their success may have been more down to the public infighting among the Lib Dems on Uttlesford council following the resignation of the hugely respected council leader Alan Dean than to a show of support for the Conservatives.

Analysis of comparable council wards, fought by all three major parties both this time and last, suggest a projected nationwide share of the vote of Labour 43.5%, Conservatives 32.4%, and Liberal Democrats 18.1%.

These figures show a meltdown of Lib Dem support, all of it going to Labour, with the Tories treading water.

Labour will no doubt be satisfied that its traditional support among the Asian community, severely tested in May because of the Iraq war, is coming back. Even at this stage, with a General Election perhaps nearly five years ago, Labour will have high hopes of knocking out Lib Dems who gained seats because of disaffection in seats with large numbers of Muslim voters.

STATISTICS supplied by the Press Association.

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