Election '97: 'When Major speaks, Blair backs down'

Trust a key issue as wavering voters plump for devil they know
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The Independent Online
Some members of the Independent's focus group of disaffected Tory voters, set up in Redditch last autumn, have already decided to switch to Labour; none has switched to the Liberal Democrats, who are expected to come third in the new seat, created by boundary changes.

The first signs appeared yesterday that Tony Blair's apparent willingness to shift ground under criticism has undermined a little of this support, suggesting such backing may be quite "soft".

Steven Marriott, 28, an engineer, was going to switch to new Labour but will now probably vote for John Major. "I thought that [Tony Blair] had a list of 10 things he was going to do but at the moment he is just bickering with John Major. As soon as Major says something, Blair backs down. I think he's panicking and he has disappointed me."

Another switcher, Mark Redfern, 29, also an engineer, will still vote for Labour but is disappointed that Mr Blair is not having a television debate with the Prime Minister. "He has let me down a bit on that. It would have proved he was the right man for the job." But he takes a practical view of a Labour win. "If they cock it up we will vote them out next time."

Mr Redfern said he had watched the debate between the three prospective chancellors and had not been impressed by new Labour's arguments. He added: "I did not think that Gordon Brown had that much to say. To be honest I thought the Liberal Democrats - Malcolm Bruce - made more sense. But then I suppose they do not have that much to lose. So they can say what they want."

Local government worker Craig Coates, 37, will back new Labour "reluctantly" - citing health as a key issue, a recurring theme in The Independent's focus group. "Tony Blair is the best man for the job and the best Labour leader in my lifetime. But I'm not quite sure about the rest of them - they are keeping quiet at the moment."

Roger Frost, a former British Gas travel manager, and another switcher, believes Mr Blair has been "excellent" during the first part of the campaign. He welcomes the Tory support for small businesses but says it is belated, and believes any Labour problems over devolution will not matter in towns like Redditch.

"We had a saying at work, 'Let's look at the wider issues - how will it affect me?'. People vote for what's best for them. It's also about celebrities and Tony Blair is the man of the time."

Another likely Labour voter, warehouse operative Adrian Blick, 30, in common with many in the focus group, is wary about pledges by Labour and the Tories not to put up taxes. "Whoever gets in will have a hard time," he said.

Mr Blick said he believed a number of people would switch towards the Conservatives by the end of the election.

He said: "I think it's going to be very close at the end. I think Labour will just do it but it will not be a run away. There is nothing in Labour's manifesto which is going to attract lots of votes."

Susan Lovett, a former sales consultant, says what she regards as Mr Blair's evasions have confirmed her decision to stick with the Tories. "I saw him interviewed by David Dimbleby and he did not want to answer the questions. I think he is insincere."

She, too, was unhappy that there would be no televised debate between the leaders and thought the real issues of the election had so far been largely ignored.

"Labour have been going on about sleaze and there has been too much on this and not about the real issues."

Ms Lovett said she thought that Mr Blair had not made a gaffe over his remarks on Scottish devolution when he referred to a Scottish parliament having the same powers as a parish council. "I think he was trying to reassure people. But I do not think it will make a lot of difference in places such as Redditch."

Nor do new Labour's tax promises persuade Denise Sparkes, 35, a dressmaker and supermarket worker. "The Tories have put up taxes but they have now done their worst. Labour could put up a whole load of different taxes."

None of the group regards sleaze as a key issue in the election, which instead seems to hinge on trust - or lack of it. David Bignell, 51, a former British Telecom engineer, was worried that the trade unions might have been promised something after the election.

Mr Bignell sums up the views of those intending to stay with the Conservatives: "It's better the devil you know."