RUTH Kelly described herself as "absolutely thrilled" as she held off a determined challenge to retain a seat opponents predicted she would lose.

Cynics had been quick to claim Ms Kelly's victory in 1997 was the fluke product of an extraordinary election.

But in the closest fought scrap of this year's Bolton campaign, she proved them wrong despite Tory James Stevens nibbling into her majority, reducing it from 7,072 to 5,518.

The full weight of Labour's party machinery was wheeled into Bolton West, with high profile visits from Chancellor Gordon Brown, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Cabinet Minister Mo Mowlam.

Ms Kelly's campaign team even took the unusual step of sending out 4,500 videos to voters in key areas outlining her work in the constituency.

But she claimed the real story of how the West was won was a vindication of Labour's last four years in power.

"The result for the Labour party in 1997 was of such a magnitude that no one dreamt we could come anywhere near this time but that's practically what we have done here today," Ms Kelly said.

"There's one real difference between 1997, when people were voting against something and that was what helped Labour achieve its landslide.

"This time we have found that people have voted for something. They see our values of a strong economy, a strong society and a just society as their values, and I'm honoured that the people of Bolton West have once again put their faith in me."

Tory candidate James Stevens was gracious in defeat, the highlights of his campaign including persuading his opponent's namesake -- Ruth Kellie of Blackrod -- to vote for him.

He said: "We in the Conservative Party recognise that perhaps we need a bit of time to regroup but once we have done that we will be back in the next election."

Liberal Democrat Barbara Ronson took heart from an increase of more than 2,000 in her vote from 5,309 in 1997 to 7,573.


She said: "I just hope that we find ourselves in a position to be an effective opposition to the Labour Party in Parliament."

But Socialist Alliance candidate Dave Toomer protested that a 15pc drop in the constituency's turnout gave the true picture.

"Many people couldn't bring themselves to vote for New Labour and more private sector involvement in the NHS and our schools," he said. "They hoped Labour would address the gap between rich and poor but they were disappointed." BOLTON WEST Ruth Kelly (Lab) 19,381

James Stevens (Con) 13,863

Barbara Ronson (Lib Dem) 7,573

Dave Toomer (Soc Alliance) 397


Majority 5,518

Turnout 62.1pc