ELECTION 2001: `We've Never Seen You in St Helen's before, Squire'

Article excerpt

IT IS A long way from Sarsden House, Shaun Woodward's 18th- century Oxfordshire home, to the barbed-wire covered West Sutton Labour Club in St Helen's, Lancashire. But it is here, among the velour splendours of the Labour club's ballroom, that the former Tory MP's fate will be decided this morning.

On the same stage that will welcome Chas 'n' Dave, the Cockney duo known for such gems as "Rabbit Rabbit", on Thursday, Mr Woodward must convince the 200 or so members of the St Helen's South Constituency Labour Party that he is not just a Millbank-imposed careerist.

Mr Woodward, who was director of communications for the Conservative Party before inheriting Douglas Hurd's safe Tory seat of Witney, in Oxfordshire, will need all the skills he displayed in that job to win over his audience. He needs to convince them that he is committed to St Helen's, a town with which he is not formerly associated.

He may, of course, have unearthed a curiously shaped vegetable grown in local soil when he was a researcher on the BBC's That's Life. Whether that will impress the local party enough to select him as their candidate, now that the incumbent, Gerry Bermingham, is standing down, remains to be seen.

Dennis Marsh, secretary of the West Sutton Labour Club, was dubious about Mr Woodward's chances. "I'd say they're less than 50 per cent," he said. "We don't know anything about him. Maybe he has good reasons for defecting to Labour. St Helen's is traditional Labour, father to son. Why should we vote for an ex-Tory when we could have someone who's been in the Labour movement all their life? …