WHEN Liberal Democrat Gordon Birtwistle seized Burnley from Labour five years ago it was a shock. If he take the seat again on May 7, it will be an even bigger one.

The former borough leader surged to his unexpected triumph when his party was on a roll nationally, Labour were unpopular UK-wide, and their MP Kitty Ussher stood down amid questions about her commitment to the town, parliamentary expenses and tax affairs.


Mr Birtwistle also had an issue — the loss of the town’s A&E unit under the Labour government.

The result was a massive 9.6 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats.

None now apply, and Mr Birtwistle admits: “It will be a shock if I keep the seat.”

He is not giving up, mounting a campaign based not on his party or his leader Nick Clegg — who he admits is unpopular in the town — but on what Birty has done for Burnley.

According to his opponent, and defeated rival five years ago, Julie Cooper, that is not much.

She dismisses his claims Burnley’s urgent-care centre is effectively an A&E, and claims credit for new investment in the town for the council she led after Labour reclaimed it.

Mrs Cooper said the big issues on the doorstep, despite coalition claims of economic recovery, are job insecurity and massive cuts in council grants under the coalition and the NHS.

The importance of the battle to reclaim Burnley, Labour for decades, is shown by shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ visit this week when he declared it a must-win seat.

While the contest is shaping up to be a two-party fight, three other candidates are trying to build a presence.

Robotics business boss Sarah Cockburn-Price for the Tories, punk singer Mike Hargreaves of the Green Party and Ukip’s Tom Commis all have little chance of winning but could affect the result. The last two elections reversed the decline of the Conservative vote in the town. Cllr Cockburn-Price said: “I have met a lot of voters who say they are Tories but vote Liberal Democrat in Worsthorne and Cliviger. I am persuading them to come home.

“I have met Labour voters but not many who admit to being committed Liberal Democrats.”

IT worker Mr Commis stresses that his party’s opposition to massive EU immigration is not about Burnley’s existing South Asian community.

He said: “The NHS, the cost of living and immigration come up on the doorstep. People coming in taking low-paid jobs tends to hit the children of people who have come and made their life here harder.”

He is not counting on the nearly 4,000 people who voted BNP in 2010, saying without a candidate “they either go back to Labour or do not vote”.

Mr Hargreaves, a 52-year-old trained nurse, sees no conflict in being lead singer Haggis of Notsensibles and a politician.

He said: “Both punk and the Green Party are revolutionary. People like our policies of redistribution of wealth and taking the profit motive out of the NHS. I want to build the political base for a green and sustainable future.”

Mrs Cooper said: “People are worried about whether they will keep their job and about their wages. The council led the drive to bring jobs and investment to Burnley which saw it named most enterprising town in the UK in 2013.

“People are worried about the NHS under the coalition and the scale of government cuts to the borough council. We did not get an A&E unit back. We got a minor-injuries unit.”

Mr Birtwistle hit back: “We got ambulances and injury treatment back to Burnley General and a new £15 million investment will get us an intensive-care unit and new operating theatres. I will continue to campaign to get a full A&E.

“I am fighting on what I have done for Burnley, and my commitment to continue fighting for the town.”