Election '97: Out there, it's not over yet

Independent goes to the country
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The Independent Online
Last week, The Independent took its reporters off the Blair and Major campaign buses and, with other political writers, they went out into key constituencies to gauge the mood of the country.

The starting point was a sense that Labour's large lead in the opinion polls may not be a complete reflection of voters' intentions.

The full diversity of their views and reasons for deciding who to support on 1 May, which emerged from dozens of interviews, can be found on pages 6 and 7.

Victory on May Day is by no means in the bag for Tony Blair, and there are no signs of the landslide suggested by the opinion polls, according to a nationwide survey by carried out by The Independent.

With just 10 days to go to polling day, the verdict from the doorsteps is that while Labour can win with a working majority, the voters are swaying and John Major still has everything to play for.

Labour's campaign co-ordinator in Tamworth, a seat which would give Mr Blair a working majority of about 20 in the new Parliament, told The Independent: "It ain't over till it's all over ... If there's a good football match on the television, or a dramatic storyline on Coronation Street, Labour voters are notorious for not bothering."

That grassroots Labour diffidence was reflected by a score of senior Tories, experienced front-line politicians, who told The Independent that they were "baffled", "astonished", and "amazed" by the continuing Labour lead in the polls - because it was not reflected in their own doorstep canvassing.

Mr Major told the Sunday Telegraph yesterday: "I find the opinion polls baffling. They bear no relationship either to the feel out there, or to the detailed canvass returns we are getting back from the constituencies ... Curious things are resonating on the doorstep."

That could explain why the Prime Minister took the strange tactical decision to spend three days on Europe last week - because Europe is undoubtedly an issue that is starting to play with certain sections of the electorate.

But the risks of that gamble broke with a vengeance yesterday, with Tory leadership contenders Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Michael Howard, the Euro-sceptic Home Secretary, openly rowing over the threat posed by Brussels.

Mr Howard told GMTV's Sunday programme that the next European summit, at Amsterdam in June "would indeed put our survival as a nation state in question".

The Chancellor told BBC television's On the Record: "We should not be imagining plots against us. I don't think the survival of Britain as a nation state is at risk because of our membership of the European Union."

The Independent reports from the constituency battlegrounds show that there could be as much distrust of Mr Blair, and for what he might do in office, as there is for Mr Major and what he has done in office.

While there are undoubtedly many voters who are disaffected with the Conservatives, they are still uncertain whether to vote for Labour. Some remember when Labour was last in office, others are simply turned off by Mr Blair's smile, and others are worried Labour is becoming too right- wing.

The survey of constituencies shows that while Labour can expect to win Redditch, giving the party the largest number of seats in a new parliament but no overall majority, and that it might well win Tamworth, put-ting it on a majority of about 20. Other seats - and a larger majority - could be out of reach as things stood last week.

Increases in tax still scar voters' attitudes, and Mr Major reflected that yesterday with a rare - if qualified - admission. He said in a Radio Forth phone-in that although the overall tax burden was now back to the same level as it had been at the last election: "I had hoped to reduce it and I failed to reduce it because the recession was deeper and longer than we thought.

"In a recession, the government's income falls from taxation, fewer house sales, things like that, and in order to protect people, and extra expenditure for people who were un- employed, we needed to put up taxes.

"I regretted that, I didn't want to do it but it was the only thing to do in order to protect people during the recession."

The Chancellor pushed his rebellion against the current party line on Europe even further - taking on the Prime Minister himself - when he said that all European finance ministers were against Brussels control over domestic tax and spending policies as part of the European single currency package. "No one has even suggested that," he said.

Yet that is the spectre that has been raised by Mr Major, and a host of Euro-sceptic Tory candidates and ministers.

Mr Major tol the Sunday Telegraph: "I agree with the argument that if you lost control of income tax and spending that you would, for practical purposes, have lost control over sovereignty. So where my backbenchers say that to me, I agree with them."

The gaping Conservative split on Europe is doing untold harm to Mr Major's campaign, and the weekend rows - with Sir Edward Heath openly criticising the advertisement portraying Mr Blair as Helmut Kohl's dummy - will not come through into the polls until this week.

But Norma Major told the Mail on Sunday: "It's sad to see how many people have rocked the boat. When you are out in the market squares, you realise a lot of people think he's doing a great job. And I think the people who are being disloyal to him are betraying the people out there."

Mr Blair told BBC radio's The World this Weekend: "I do feel sympathy for him in his present situation, and he is dogged and tenacious in the way he has tried to handle his own political party. But I will say to you bluntly what the problem has been: it has always been a fight for a job, not a fight for a vision."

Even the post pessimistic opinion polling for Labour puts the party on a majority of more than 100.

A survey of recent by-election results, carried out for the Sunday Times, shows Labour with 44 per cent share of the vote, compared with 31 per cent for the Tories and 20 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. That result, much closer than the average of the weekend opinion polls, giving Labour a 16 percentage point lead, would give Mr Blair a majority of about 125 seats in the new parliament.

But one senior Conservative told The Independent last night he did not believe Labour was that far ahead. "We must keep playing to win," he said. "It's not over until the polling booths shut."