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Labour faces catastrophe at election warn MPs

Andy McSmith, reprinted from Independent on Sunday (12/09/04)


Commons majority 'could be wiped out'. Lib Dems change tactics to target Labour

By Andy McSmith, Political Editor

Tony Blair is heading towards an electoral catastrophe that could wipe out his huge Commons majority because of disillusionment and apathy among Labour supporters, according to warnings issued by senior party figures.

Labour MPs from around the country, including some who were returned with large majorities in 2001, have privately warned that they are now under pressure because their own voters are threatening either to stay away on polling day or vote for fringe candidates.

The party chairman, Ian McCartney, issued a warning yesterday to Labour supporters that there will be no "comfort zone" in next year's general election. In an article for the magazine Parliamentary Monitor he wrote: "Any sign of complacency in this campaign plays straight into Tory hands."

The Independent on Sunday can also reveal that Charles Kennedy has decided to "recalibrate" the Liberal Democrats' election strategy, to take advantage of the erosion of Labour's support in big cities like Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne.

The warnings will put immense pressure on Alan Milburn after his controversial appointment last week, when he supplanted Gordon Brown as Labour's chief election strategist. Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, said: "If we don't win a majority of more than 80 seats then Alan Milburn will have failed. Gordon Brown delivered two magnificent majorities of more than twice that size."

The IoS has also obtained a private email sent by Labour MP Nick Palmer, who has bluntly admitted that he is likely to be kicked out by the voters at the next election, and replaced by a Tory, although his Broxtowe constituency, adjoining Nottingham, is 69th in the list of Labour seats that the Tories have the best hope of capturing. If a seat such as Broxtowe, which Dr Palmer held in 2001 with a 5,873 majority, were lost, Mr Blair's Commons majority would disappear overnight.

Dr Palmer's email, marked "private for members and friends", warned: "The results [based on local canvas returns] do show a solid and in some cases quite militant and aggressive Tory vote and a hesitant former Labour vote."

Yesterday, Dr Palmer stood by his email, sent a week ago to his closest supporters. "In our patch the Tories are barely visible, but their voters turn out, while a lot of Labour voters are not sure that they want to vote."

Mr Kennedy is hoping the Lib Dems will be the main repository of Labour protest votes, because of their opposition to the Iraq war and policies on pensions and public services calculated to appeal to Labour voters. "The Tories are essentially dead in the water," Mr Kennedy told the IoS yesterday. "We can encourage their supporters to change their minds, but I think they're changing their minds for themselves.

"But there are a lot of Labour seats where we might not even be in second place, but where former Labour voters are not going to vote Labour again this time. They are not going to toy with Michael Howard and the Tory party either, so we can leap over the Tories into first place."

Mr Kennedy forecast that Newcastle - where his party took control of the local council last May - will elect its first Liberal Democrat MP in living memory.

Last week's resignation by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Andrew Smith, was partly driven by a fear that unless he devoted more time to his Oxford East seat, which he held by a majority of 10,344 last time, he could lose to the Liberal Democrats.

Labour was shaken last week when the London Borough of Tower Hamlets elected its first Tory councillor since it was formed 40 years ago, after a large part of the traditional Labour vote went to the anti-war pressure group Respect.

Mr Milburn will try to calm the storm whipped by his new appointment when he has a private meeting early this week with Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown is furious about the press briefings accompanying Mr Milburn's appointment, which he sees as a deliberate attempt to humiliate and provoke him.


 

September 2004

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