Sheffield & South Yorkshire

Rotherham by-election sees 'rough and tumble' campaign

After two weeks of loudspeaker vehicles circling the town centre, thousands of doorbells being rung and soggy last-minute leaflets being stuffed through letter boxes in the driving rain, Rotherham goes to the polls to elect its new MP on Thursday.

On paper Labour candidate Sarah Champion should have little to worry about. Every MP since the 1930s has made a victory speech wearing a red rosette in this South Yorkshire coal and steel town.

At the 2010 General Election the party crossed the finishing post 10,000 votes ahead with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives virtually neck-and-neck but as a distant second and third.

Yet it is less than a month since Denis MacShane, the former Europe Minister, admitted wrongfully claiming thousands of pounds in expenses and was forced to resign after the House of Commons Standards Committee recommended an unprecedented 12-month suspension.

Image caption Denis MacShane was forced to resign after wrongfully claiming expenses

'Rough and tumble'

Labour chose what it called a "clean-break candidate" in the form of Sarah Champion. She was neither a professional politician nor associated with the all-powerful local Labour party that had chosen the disgraced MacShane and packs the local council with its members.

It was a gamble because even though she has a high local profile, as the chief executive of Rotherham's Bluebell Wood children's hospice, she has never had to cope with the rough-and-tumble of an election campaign.

And it really has been a rough and tumble campaign with both UKIP and Respect fielding powerful, experienced women candidates who have poured criticism on what they say is the unhealthy monopoly of Labour political power in the town.

Respect's Yvonne Ridley, a former Fleet Street journalist and now anti-war campaigner, has been touring the town in an open-topped bus with the indefatigable Bradford West MP George Galloway at her side. They have mounted a firestorm of criticism against what they claim is a regime of corruption and cover-up. George Galloway's first words in Rotherham set the tone: "We are here because your former MP was a thief."

With just four days to go before polling, UKIP hijacked the entire campaign by revealing that two of its local members had been stopped from fostering children from an "EU migrant community" because of the party's "multi-cultural policies". UKIP leader Nigel Farage said this was a Labour council slurring his party with racism.

In two days of headline-making rows that followed, UKIP's candidate Jane Collins absolutely denied that the party had engineered the timing of the story to be used as a campaign issue.

Image caption Rotherham has seen more announcements of job losses during the campaign

Further job losses

Labour said it was a side issue which would have no impact on the way people voted in a parliamentary by election but would not allow their inexperienced candidate to be interviewed or publically debate the matter.

Simon Wilson, Conservative, and Michael Beckett, Liberal Democrats, have been quietly getting on with their doorstep campaigns with not a single megaphone between them.

Rotherham has not been a particularly happy hunting ground for either party and both have had to take on board announcement of further job losses in the steel and coal industries during the campaign.

It is a crowded field of 11 candidates including the far-right BNP, the even-further-right EDL, the English Democrats, a Trade Union and Socialist group, a local vicar and an independent who has hardly been seen since paying his nomination fee.

Labour says it has done enough to retain the seat but low turnout has always been a chronic threat for any party holding historic, big majorities.

Fresh off the back of a Manchester Central by-election that saw the lowest proportion of the electorate voting in modern political history, with the winter weather closing in and the distraction of Christmas shopping, any party getting the bulk of its supporters out must fancy its chances.

It could be the final bequest of Denis MacShane that keeps the seat for Labour- the thumping majorities he maintained throughout the five elections he fought and won in Rotherham.

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