A controversial question on Twitter, a row over copyright, angry claims of a smear campaign. The General Election fight in Edgbaston – Birmingham’s most marginal constituency – is hotting up, writes Public Affairs Correspondent Paul Dale
It started with a loaded question about the financial affairs of Birmingham’s best know political clan – the Conservative Alden family.
Edgbaston Labour MP Gisela Stuart used the micro-blogging site Twitter to issue a comment which left her Tory General Election opponent Deirdre Alden seething.
The MP’s message suggested it was possible that Deirdre Alden, her husband John Alden and son Robert Alden, who are all city councillors, claimed a total of £150,000 in allowances and expenses from the public purse last year.
Mrs Stuart said she had been told this was the case by “someone on the phone”, and went on to ask people whether this could be true.
In fact, the actual figure was little more than £75,000 and Mrs Stuart was forced to issue a clarification on Twitter after being contacted by Birmingham City Council.
Her clarification, however, was interpreted by the Aldens as flippant in the extreme: “So glad to hear the man on the phone was wrong,” Mrs Stuart wrote.
The Aldens are demanding an apology, which the MP has so far refused to give.
Coun Deirdre Alden said: “She must have known it wasn’t true. The original figure she gave was grossly inflated.
“I think this says more about Mrs Stuart than it says about me. It was a bit of a dirty trick. The implication was that we had claimed a huge amount of money, which we hadn’t.
“There’s a saying that a dirty campaigner is a worried campaigner, which is certainly true in this case.”
Coun Alden added that she was particularly upset that Mrs Stuart had mentioned her son, Robert, who no longer lives at home.
“It was a particularly mean thing to do. Robert lives with his girlfriend and they have a joint mortgage. He’s nothing to do with me,” she added.
Coun Alden and Mrs Stuart are also involved in a bitter row over election material.
The MP has used a picture of Coun Alden on Labour leaflets criticising Conservative-run Birmingham City Council.
The photograph was taken from the council website. However, at the end of 2009 Coun Alden bought the copyright from the council preventing anyone publishing the picture without first gaining her approval.
Coun Alden said: “Mrs Stuart did not ask my permission to use the photo. I have written to her asking her to withdraw the leaflets forthwith, dispose of them, confirm to me that she is going to do just that and not to use photos of me again when she doesn’t own the copyright.”
As a city councillor, Coun Deirdre Alden is entitled to claim a basic allowance of £16,267 plus £14,099 as chairman of the health scrutiny committee and £4,196 as chairman of the Edgbaston Constituency Committee.
Coun John Alden can claim the basic allowance plus £14,099 for chairing the leisure scrutiny committee.
Coun Robert Alden can only claim the basic allowance.
Expenses can be claimed by councillors for travel and overnight accommodation on official duties.
Last year, Coun Deirdre Alden claimed £400 for petrol.
She added: “It’s a bit rich for an MP who claimed expenses at Westminster for buying food to criticise us.
“I have asked her to apologise, but she hasn’t done so yet.”
Mrs Stuart is facing a tough fight to cling on to her Edgbaston seat.
She won at the 2005 General Election with a majority of 2,349, leaving Coun Deirdre Alden needing a swing of just over three per cent to take the seat this year. Asked to comment on her Twitter messages, Mrs Stuart said: “As soon as I knew the facts, I put the facts up.”
Regarding the leaflet, Mrs Stuart said she had received the letter of complaint from Mrs Alden. “It said she had purchased the copyright for £12”, she said.
She refused to comment on whether any action would be taken to remove the picture from the leaflet, saying her agent would respond to Mrs Alden.