Barnsley Central byelection turnout down as drizzle meets lack of interest

Labour's former Para expected to hold Barnsley Central as Lib Dems fear Conservative, Ukip and even BNP challenge

Damp, drizzle and a downbeat campaign have contributed to a low turnout in Barnsley Central, where Labour is defending a rock-solid seat vacated by Eric Illsley, the MP jailed for expenses fraud.

Nerves have been taut at Liberal Democrat campaign headquarters, where activists are anxious about potentially slipping from a distant second in May's general election to third place or even lower.

Fall-out in South Yorkshire from the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's U-turn on student fees and perceived hawkishness on budget cuts, has raised the prospect of the Conservatives, Ukip or conceivably the BNP beating the party.

Labour's qualms over the legacy of Illsley, a popular MP whose disgrace came as a genuine shock locally, has eased during the brief campaign. Its candidate, Dan Jarvis, 38, who was a major in the Parachute Regiment until he resigned to fight the seat, has prospered in the former mining area which is one of the army's traditional recruiting grounds.

Labour said voting was likely to increase as the evening wore on, with polling always heavier after work and in the run-up to the 10pm deadline. Activists from all parties have been out campaigning and making final efforts to persuade waverers, with Ukip's's purple and gold doing well in the poster battle. The result is expected at 1am.

Jarvis's record of frontline action in Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to stem the haemorrhage of Labour's "conservative vote" – the core of its support in a town cautious about change – to the BNP. The extreme rightwing party has polled over 25% in four of the constituency's wards in local elections and claims Barnsley as one of its strongest areas in Yorkshire.

But the party has suffered from its internal quarrels and its candidate, Enis Dalton, has not been showcased in the way suggested by the BNP leader, Nick Griffin.

The Lib Dem candidate Dominic Carman, son of the barrister George Carman, is also an anti-BNP veteran, and took on Griffin at the general election in Barking, east London, where the BNP leader was crushed by Labour's Margaret Hodge.

Carman's pavement-politics campaign, including a petition to save Barnsley's famous market, is his best hope of not losing his deposit. His "outsider" status in a famously parochial area is less of a handicap given that none of the party candidates hail from the town. Only independent Tony Devoy, who managed 610 votes last May, claims to have been born and bred in Barnsley.

The byelection's chief hope of excitement drifted away when David Cameron's hopes of persuading the cricketer Darren Gough to stand were dashed. Born in the suburb of Monk Bretton, close to the impressive ruins of a 12th-century Cluniac priory, Gough decided he was too busy with other commitments.

The Tory challenger James Hockney is a businessman and also a coal miner's grandson, and has high hopes of being runner-up. A Cambridgeshire councillor, he contested Barnsley East in May and needs only a whisker to overtake the Lib Dems, who were just six votes ahead of the Tories in Barnsley Central at the last general election.

A weekend poll suggested Labour would cruise in with 63% of the vote, back to levels the party enjoyed until May, when Illsley had a much-reduced, if still comfortable, 47% of the vote.

Contributor

Martin Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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