Head to head on the campaign trail

18th April 1997 at 01:00
If posters won elections, Helen Liddell would be home and dry. The only display to rival that of Labour's education spokesperson as we toured her newly created constituency of Airdrie and Shotts was the SNP symbol nailed to a tree.

But her political opponents will almost certainly try to nail her on education. Nick Brook, the Tory candidate, says she will "struggle to sell the Labour policy particularly since it removes parental choice by abolishing assisted places and nursery vouchers".

Mrs Liddell, a seasoned campaigner with 11 years behind her as secretary of the Labour party in Scotland, has yet to encounter assisted places as a burning issue in Airdrie. But she is taking nothing for granted. Her bruising experience during the 1994 Monklands East by-election following the death of John Smith, the Labour leader, would have taught her that.

Now Monklands is no more and the divisiveness of that campaign, which reduced Labour's majority of 15,712 to 1,640 against strong SNP competition and a background of corruption allegations involving the former district council, has given way to a more relaxed contest.

Airdrie and Shotts emerged from Boundary Commission changes, creating a notional 1992 Labour majority of 19,655. Even the private housing schemes are Labour territory. With that strength around her, Mrs Liddell has been able to spend part of the election on Labour's key seats trail as well as putting in national appearances. Her pager is ever-present. But she certainly lets the good folk of Airdrie know when she has arrived.

"Calderbank deserves a Labour government," she declared on her loudhailer last week to the accompanying strains of "Things can only get better" by the group D:Ream. Then it was on with the same message to Chapelhall, where she was brought up, passing the local bar where she crooned as a student - named, happily, the Winning Post.

Devonview community nursery, an open-all-h ours establishment in Airdrie, brought a positive gleam to her eye as she sized up its possibilities as one of Labour's "early excellence centres". A quarter of places are for children with special needs. It also plays host to the retired and after-school groups.

She says: "I came at education from a different angle, from the parents' point of view particularly, and I was able to take the opportunity of doing something quite radical." She insists Labour in Scotland will fashion its own education policies without any dictation from England. "They have pinched some of our ideas," she comments.

She has been able to forge a policy despite having nine other portfolios to handle. "I am the walking case for devolution," she says warming to a favourite theme. "With that size of brief, I now see more than ever the importance of having a dedicated education minister in a Scottish parliament able to devote himself or herself wholeheartedly to the subject."

She may or may not be that person if Labour is returned to power. But Mrs Liddell's rapid promotion to the Labour frontbench is testimony to the high regard in which she is held by the party leadership.

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