A NORTH East Euro MEP acknowledged the threat from his UKIP rival on a pre-election visit to South Tyneside this week.
Newcastle-born Martin Callahan, a Tory MEP, took a tour around South Shields’s Market Place this week with Edward Russell, deputy chairman of the town’s Conservative Association, and praised a £100m masterplan being carried out to rejuvenate the area.
Mr Callahan, who was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and then re-elected in 2004 and 2009, admits he faces a fight to be re-elected next May.
UKIP knocked the Tories into third place with almost 25 per cent of the votes at the South Shields Parliamentary by-election earlier this year.
As expected, Labour held the seat with Emma Lewell-Buck replacing the departed David Miliband, but UKIP was delighted with its performance, which saw the party’s candidate, Richard Elvin, attract 5,988 votes compared with the 2,857 won by Tory Karen Allen. With that backdrop, Mr Callahan is well aware that returning to the European Parliament will be a challenge. He said: “Yes, UKIP did very well at the South Shields by-election. We have to acknowledge that, but I don’t think they are a viable alternative to the Conservatives.
“We don’t really know what they actually stand for, and they don’t have a single MP in Parliament.
“What the voters should remember is that it is only the Conservatives who are pledged to holding a referendum on Europe.
“What you also have to consider is that at the South Shields by-election UKIP spent an awful lot of money, but their resources were based in one area. They will not be able to do that at next year’s election.”
Mr Elvin is one of three candidates put forward by UKIP in the region for next year’s Euro elections – but the party’s No1 candidate is Sheffield-based Jonathan Arnott.
Mr Callahan said: “It surprised me that they didn’t go for Mr Elvin, a local candidate, after his success in Shields. Instead, they picked someone from outside the region. That to me is rather curious.”
The North East constituency stretches from Berwick-on-Tees to Darlington.
Mr Callahan added: “I try to come to South Tyneside as often as I can.
“The area is still coming to terms with the loss of traditional industries and unemployment is still too high.
“I strongly believe the EU should help Europe’s young unemployed by overcoming the vested interests that prevent economic reforms needed to open markets, and by ending the culture of ever closer union, which only means ever more meddling in people’s lives.”
Mr Russell added: “Martin lives in Gateshead, so he’s on our doorstep and is a regular visitor to South Tyneside, supporting the fundraising functions that we stage. He is an excellent candidate.”
The North East has three MEPs. In addition to Mr Callahan, there is Stephen Hughes, for Labour, and Fiona Hall, for the Liberal Democrats.
Candidates are elected through proportional representation – not the “first past the post” system used in UK Parliamentary elections.
That means all the votes are counted and the share for each political party used to select the winner.
All three seats are up for grabs next May, with Mr Hughes and Ms Hall standing down.