Election '97: Tories close gap on Labour as voters confound the polls

Message from The Independent's survey of six important constituencies is that a landslide for Tony Blair is unlikely as the Conservative vote refuses to collapse: BRISTOL WEST: A win here means a landslide for Blair, with a majority of around 140
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If there is a Labour landslide on 1 May, William Waldegrave's Bristol West seat will be swept away with a swing of 12 per cent, giving Tony Blair a majority in the Commons of around 140.

However, our survey suggests that it is out of Labour's grasp. It is not a Labour target seat, and we found little enthusiasm for Tony Blair's new Labour among Tory voters, in spite of local Labour claims to the contrary.

The Liberal Democrats came second in Bristol West in 1992, and are engaged in a battle with Labour to secure the tactical votes to get the Tories out. But on the doorsteps, there was evidence that some Tory voters are switching to the Liberal Democrats because they want to spend more on public services, such as health and education - a big issue in the City - from higher taxation. Some Liberal Democrats are switching to Labour, afraid they cast a "wasted vote" last time.

Labour's control of the local city council, and its high council tax, the bills for which arrived at the start of April, are also putting off Tory voters from voting Labour.

The lack of enthusiasm for Labour was striking. Several voters in thought Labour "wishy washy" and questioned whether they could "trust" Tony Blair after the number of apparent policy changes in the past week.

There was little open hostility to the Government. There are clear signs that the Tory vote is holding up better than the polls suggest. Most of the Tory voters we canvassed were planning to vote Tory again, and said that in spite of insecurity in work, they were seeing signs of recovery. John Major also rated highly. "All my friends are staying Tory. Despite all the hyperbole about the 'grey man', I think John Major will fight our corner in Europe," said Toni, a chef in the Clifton Down shopping centre. There is a dull feeling of boredom in the electorate with a party which many felt had been in power too long. "The Tories have run out of steam," said one couple in their 50s, who were switching from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.

A dental nurse and a retired customs officer living in a big house in Great Brockeridge, a Tory avenue in the suburbs, said a lot of their golfing friends were talking about voting for Labour, but they were going to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

We followed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a fellow of All Souls, as he went through the ritual of pulling votes in a Labour ward. He met Labour voters, Liberal Democrats, and Tories, some including close friends. There was never any outright hostility, unlike the 1992 election in the recession.

He is being challenged by Valerie Davey, a bright Labour candidate and local councillor, who says there is "absolute vibrancy" out on the streets about the election. We never found it. Her Liberal Democrat opponent, Charles Boney, runner-up last time, described her as "a sincere christian socialist - not part of the newly converted evangelical tendency" in the Labour leadership.

Pascale Thornton, 35

Retail manager

Switching from Tories to Labour. "I have always voted Conservative. I will be voting Labour. You see beggars on the streets. Everything is becoming a charity shop. Britain is a charity shop. I don't think Labour can do any worse. In fact, I would sooner have Maggie Thatcher back."

Terence Derbyshire, 57

Shop keeper

He is sticking with the Tories: "It has got better over the last two years, there is no getting away from it. Look at Germany - they are starting to go through the recession we had a few years ago. Major reminds me of my bank manager. I think he's very good, someone you can trust."

Christine Howells, 45

Illustrator

Staying with the Liberal Democrats. "I am a bit disillusioned with the Government but the Tories have done some good things, including private enterprise.

"In a way, we [Lib Dem voters] are in a cleft stick. I hate the thought that it is a wasted vote. That is why many people are going to vote Labour.

I am a bit worried Blair is giving everyone such wonderful promises. I don't know whether he can fulfill any."

"I am concerned about the council tax. It is about pounds 600 a year. Lots of people are sending their children to fee-paying schools because they are not happy with local schools."

Dave Jeal, 30

Voluntary church worker

Voting Labour again. "The poor are very poor in this city. Having worked for the homeless in this city, it is diabolical seeing the number of homeless in the streets being kicked out of children's homes.

"I don't think the Tories will get in because they have had such a long time in office.

"However, I think old Labour would have done a much better job than new Labour. I think they are very wishy-washy, champagne socialists."

Brian Trigg, 54

Shortly to retire as a police superintendent

Sticking with the Conservatives. "I have always voted Conservative. I look at their record. If you look at Europe, to be quite honest, you can say we are in many cases leading the rest of Europe. I put that down to some of the independence that we have. I would not want to see some of that independence being compromised. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, listens to what people are telling him and morale in the police force is very good. Police officers are now paid a reasonable wage. I remember times when police officers were on very low wages."

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