Blair in hot pursuit of floating voters

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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair took his "New Labour" message to a group of wavering voters in Saddleworth yesterday, in a move which raises the stakes in the by- election to replace the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens, who died last month.

Talking to a group of 12 selected voters in a hotel, the Labour leader said how much the party had changed but insisted he would not be able to do everything people wanted in government. "I was impressed by him principally because he wasn't promising anything," Peter Chadwick, 56, a former industrialist and a friend of Mr Dickens, said.

Andrew McGuffie, 18, a student, said: "He was very honest. There are no short-term solutions. He was very realistic."

Labour faces a stern test in the by-election, expected on 20 July, as it finished in third place at the last general election, although the party pushed the Conservatives into third place in the local elections in the constituency last month.

Mr Blair insisted: "The choice will be between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour, and for most people here they'll want to make a choice that makes a difference.

"We are the party that can form an alternative government and a vote for us can send easily the strongest signal to the Conservatives."

Mr Blair's visit underlines the importance the Labour leader attributes to the Greater Manchester by-election, as does his appointment of Peter Mandelson, his close ally and MP for Hartlepool, to run the campaign.

The 'switchers' he met, who had been recruited by Labour officials, confirmed that "people who previously voted Conservative are now coming straight over to Labour", he said.

One former Tory, Tom Jones, 47, a former bank manager, told Mr Blair he would vote Labour because the Government was not listening.

Mr Blair went out of his way to talk straight, refusing to promise to reverse cuts in student grants and admitting that Labour was "probably far too slow" to face up to the problems of improving public services.

Labour's National Executive will draw up a candidate shortlist tomorrow, and the choice will be made in a one member, one vote ballot on Friday.

Labour's candidate will face a confident Liberal Democrat, Chris Davies, as his party snatched a council seat in a by-election next door to Littleborough and Saddleworth last week. Liberal Democrat officials brushed aside a report in the SundayTelegraph that Mr Davies supported the decriminalisation of cannabis, which is not Liberal Democrat policy.

Labour strategists believe that the Liberal Democrat vote is "soft", and are supported by detailed analysis of the Independent's State of the Nation opinion poll, carried out by Mori.

It showed that nearly half of Liberal Democrat voters, 47 per cent, name Labour as their second choice, against only 20 per cent naming the Conservatives.

But Littleborough and Saddleworth poses a steeper challenge than the Eastleigh by-election, where Labour finished second, some way behind the Liberal Democrats, at the start of its high-profile leadership election campaign.

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