UK Politics

Europe adds significance to by-election contest

It looked like being a pretty invisible by-election - cloaked in the winter gloom, drowned out by the all pervasive Christmas musak, a probable Labour hold, defending a 4,500 majority.

But all of a sudden, the dramatic events in the early hours of last Friday morning in Brussels makes Thursday's poll in the Feltham and Heston seat, just west of London, the first real test of public opinion since David Cameron vetoed a new EU treaty on closer fiscal union.

Image caption Ed Miliband campaigning in Feltham

The poll was brought about by the death of the sitting Labour MP, Alan Keen, who had been suffering from cancer. In recent times, the Conservatives had been chipping away at Mr. Keen's majority. They halved it in 2005 and there was a further 4.5% swing away from Labour to the Tories in 2010.

But the Conservative campaign got off to a somewhat stuttering start, with a spat between two Tory MPs made public, in which one said they had no chance of winning the seat.

The Conservative candidate, Mark Bowen, who leads the Conservative group on Hounslow council, dismisses such defeatist talk and says events in Brussels have played well with the voters.

He said: "The prime minister came to the constituency on the Thursday before he left for Brussels and was very clear he was going to the summit to bat for Britain.

"The response we're receiving from the doorstep is a genuinely positive one; local people tell me David Cameron has done the right thing in Britain's interest and they very much welcome it."

But Mark Bowen's partner party (nationally at least) paints a different picture.

The Liberal Democrats came a pretty poor third in the 2010 election, and the party's discomfort over last week's outcome can only serve to reinforce the fact that they are the junior partner in the coalition.

However, their candidate, Roger Crouch, downplays the significance of Europe as an issue, albeit in faintly elliptical fashion.

He said: "Europe is one of a mix of different issues on the doorstep. There's no point being a bulldog, but in the kennel and muzzled.

"People are concerned about their jobs and the impact it would have on the economy and jobs in this area. The coalition is concentrating on dealing with the deficit and making sure individuals have jobs."

One party that feels it stands to benefit from Europe being in the news is the UK Independence Party. They came fifth behind the British National Party at last year's general election, but are putting greater effort in this time around.

Their candidate, Andrew Charalambous, fought another London seat last year - then he was a Conservative. He says David Cameron's actions won't help the Tories in the by-election.

"The message we've been getting from people here is that they are unhappy with the amount of money that's being sent to the EU and that they do not want to bail out other countries.

"Cameron has done absolutely nothing to stop the £50m a day we're sending to the EU or the £12.5bn we've given to debt ridden countries. What's really changed since Friday? For the people of Feltham and Heston, nothing."

Image caption David Cameron campaigning before heading to the EU summit

Labour has been campaigning hard on issues such as youth unemployment which the candidate, Seema Malhotra, says has risen faster here than almost anywhere else.

Ms Malhotra is a former aide to Harriet Harman and a businesswoman in her own right. Some of her opponents have made much of the fact that she lives in fashionable Chelsea, but she insists she is in the area every weekend, visiting family.

On Europe she says: "Businesses in Feltham and Heston are already having a tough time. Now, with organisations such as the CBI angry that Cameron has ditched Britain's influence with our biggest trading partners, businesses large and small in Feltham and Heston are telling me they're worried for the future. And that's what worries me too."

The biggest challenge all the candidates face is the weather and the season. Turnout can be hit hard by winter polls and in the run-up to Christmas, other priorities can intrude on the voters' time.

Nevertheless everyone will scrutinise this result for any wider messages on the economy, the coalition and Europe.

* At the 2010 General Election Labour got 21,174 votes, The Conservatives, 16,516, the Lib Dems 6,669, the BNP 1,714, UKIP 992 and the Greens 530.

The complete list of candidates is:

* David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party)* Mark Bowen (Conservative)* Andrew Charalambous (UKIP)* Roger Cooper (English Democrats)* Roger Crouch (Liberal Democrat)* David Furness (BNP)* Daniel Goldsmith (Green)* George Hallam (London People Before Profit)* Seema Malhotra (Labour).

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