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: REDDITCH: 44th on Labour's target list. A win here would make Labour the largest party in a hung Parliament
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Unhappy Conservative supporters who were planning to vote for new Labour are heading back to the Tory fold, according to The Independent's focus group in this key marginal. Their reasons are based on disappointment with the low-key Blair election campaign and the way his party has appeared to change policy under fire.

The views of the group - all Tory voters five years ago - have been closely monitored since last November and until last week none had significantly changed their views on which way to vote. Now half of those who formerly told The Independent they were certain or likely to switch to Labour have had second thoughts. One voter, who had previously vilified the Tory leadership, admitted that John Major was at least "facing the issues" while Labour avoided hard questions.

Their changing views have coincided with a growing concern over Europe following the publicity given to the Tories' divisions on the subject and Mr Major's responses. However, though the general tone of remarks is Euro-sceptical, there is confusion over the implications of the single currency, together with worry about Britain being left behind by other European countries.

This small glimmer of hope for the Conservatives is echoed by their candidate in Redditch, Anthea McIntyre, who seems genuinely optimistic about the party's chances in the new seat, in which Labour needs a swing of just over 3 per cent to win.

She believes there could be a double squeeze on Labour, with many of those now "undecided" voting Conservative, and a number of disgruntled old Labour supporters abstaining.

Ms McIntyre, a business consultant, said: "I honestly do feel we do have a chance. I think some traditional Labour voters are going to stay at home - that's what they are telling me."

If Labour fails to take seats such as Redditch it will effectively mean the end of its hopes of forming the next government. Its candidate is lecturer Jacqui Smith, who like Ms McIntyre is highly regarded in her party's hierarchy.

Pausing briefly in her high-octane campaign, Ms Smith says she is "quietly optimistic" about her party's chances. "We have had a phoney war for too long and at last we're into the real campaign," she said. Canvassers had found a lot of undecided, unhappy Tories, a lot of whom she believed would end up switching to Labour, a process she was confident would continue despite recent reservations expressed to us about Mr Blair and his party. "We are getting a lot of support and we're certainly very optimistic. But we know we have to get people out and earn their trust."

However, though among The Independent group there are those who say they will still switch to Labour, a worrying fact for the party is the apparent softness of such support. A number say they probably prefer the "honesty" of Paddy Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats, though feel it is a wasted vote. One or two others show signs of wobbling; as Ms Smith confessed, they are taking nothing for granted.

Steven Marriott, 28,

Radio frequency engineer

The former Conservative voter was preparing to vote Labour but is having second thoughts.

"I'm having doubts about Tony Blair. I just do not trust him. He seems to say one thing, but I reckon he will do the opposite.

"I thought Labour would have a good campaign, but they are being very vague and not saying much about their policies.

"My main concerns are jobs and retraining and the parties not lying on taxation.

"I now think I will vote Conservative again unless Labour pull their socks up and are more detailed on what they will do."

Andrew Osciak, 45,


A former Tory voter who had decided to switch to Labour before the campaign began.

"But now I'm not sure again. It's just the way they are behaving, like Blair over Scotland and privatisation. They seem to keep changing their policies, reverting to Tory policies.

"I'm not convinced either by the Conservatives and I'm a bit mixed up now over what to do.

"Law and order is my main concern and the NHS. The Tories are saying they will improve it, but they said that last time and it is being run down."

Lionel Baird, 52,


Was determined to switch to Labour, but after meeting local Labour councillors will probably vote Tory again.

"It was a real eye-opener like going back 20 or 30 years. They were talking about trade union power and buying back the privatised industries.

"I thought new Labour had changed, but the leopard has not changed its spots. It was frightening. To be honest, now I think about it we both have jobs, we have a good life and go on two or three holidays a year."

Susan Lovett, 38

Former sales consultant

Is staying with the Conservatives, though she admires Paddy Ashdown.

"Out of the three, he comes across as more positive, but its the same old question, people feel that if they voted for the Liberal Democrats it would be a wasted vote and let Labour in.

"It's a shame that the Conservatives are falling apart over Europe. The Labour Party are more bottled up, but I think they are equally split. Europe is a key issue and I think we need to be better informed.

"On the economy I still trust the Conservatives more. I just don't think Tony Blair is trustworthy, he never answers questions directly."

Mark Redfern, 29,


Had made up his mind to switch to Labour, but he's now wavering.

"I still think I'm going to vote Labour, but I'm not as happy with them as I was. I'm swaying a bit.

"I think the Tories have had a better campaign, though I'm still dissatisfied with them. At least John Major is facing the issues.

"The Liberal Democrats are probably making more sense than anyone at the moment and say they are going to put 1p on tax.

"I want to make the right decision, but I'm a bit confused."