THE parties rolled out their big guns in the countdown to the Eastleigh by-election.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown, Labour’s shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Conservative Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin were in the railway town in a bid to boost the prospects of their candidates yesterday.

Lord Ashdown joined Lib Dem hopeful Mike Thornton for a walk about Eastleigh town centre at lunchtime, while Ed Balls accompanied his candidate John O’Farrell on a visit to Hendy Motor Group, in Leigh Road.

Yvette Cooper later helped unveil a new Labour poster for the by-election outside the party’s Leigh Road campaign office.

In the afternoon Patrick McLoughlin was with Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings as they viewed the operation at Woodside Avenue firm Lambert Brothers Haulage.

Meanwhile Hampshire MEP Marta Andreasen joined the Conservative campaign in Eastleigh for the first time since joining the party from UKIP.

Alternative The South East of England representative visited Botley with Tory by-election hopeful Maria Hutchings.

Labour can offer a real alternative for disillusioned Lib Dem and Tory voters was the message from Ed Balls.

His wife, Yvette Cooper, echoed that sentiment as Labour unveiled a campaign billboard, which read: “Tory? Lib Dem? They’re just the same now.”

Mr Balls acknowledged that from the beginning Labour was the underdog in this contest. However, he said people that had voted Lib Dem tactically to stop the Tories getting into power had been left disappointed.

Mr Balls said: “The Liberal Democrats say send the Tories a message, the Tories say send the Liberal Democrats a message. The top rate tax cut, the flat lining of the economy, hitting family budgets with tax credits – the Lib Dems and Tories did these things together.”

Ms Cooper said that Labour would be investing in Eastleigh and in jobs which included not turning back on the European market.

The campaign did not get off to a good start earlier though at Hendy Ford Group when Mr Balls asked a mechanic who he would be voting for and was told “not Labour”.

Asked by the Daily Echo what Labour would have done differently to prevent the closure of the nearby Ford plant, Mr Balls said it was not possible for any Government to stop a closure, as big companies make these decisions.

He said: “The real challenge is what we do to help that community to get new jobs and new training.

“A politician who says he can prevent any job loss is a fool.”

Lord Ashdown said his party was locked in a “two-horse race” with the Conservatives to win the by-election.

He predicted the battle to fill disgraced MP Chris Huhne’s seat would be “very tight” and that he has “never been confident”

of the party winning the seat.

Asked how confident he was of a Lib Dem victory, the former party leader told the Daily Echo: “To be confident it seems to me is to be arrogant and to take the electorate for granted and we certainly don’t do that. Look at the number of people out here, I have never seen so much energy in a by-election.”

Transport Secretary Patrick McCloughlin insisted the Government was doing enough to maximise the benefits of Eastleigh’s road, rail, sea and air links. He pointed to the £170m earmarked for local councils to help with transport “pinch points”.

Asked if the Government was doing all it could to build on Eastleigh’s motorway, train and air links, he said: “We are doing a lot but infrastructure projects always take a lot of time and they are sometimes controversial as well.”

n Maria Hutchings was absent last night from the final hustings event before the election.

She snubbed an invitation to the Question Time-style event held at the Pavilion on the Park, which saw Liberal Democrat, Labour and UKIP candidates answering questions from the public.