Gap narrows between parties

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Labour yesterday switched tactics, steering attention away from the economy and towards crime, education and health as opinion polls showed a small drop in the party's big lead over the Conservatives.

An NOP survey in today's Sunday Times shows Labour's support falling four points, from 52 per cent to 48. The Tories are unchanged at 28 per cent but the Liberal Democrats recorded a big rise to 17 per cent - five up from last week. An ICM poll in the Observer put Labour on 48, the Tories on 32 and the Lib-Dems on 15. A Gallup poll in the Sunday Telegraph recorded Labour on 49, the Tories on 33 and the Lib-Dems on 12.

The Opposition has spent days trying to reassure the voters over economic competence, but yesterday drew a line under last week's rows over privatisation by switching the focus of the campaign to social issues. Jack Straw, the party's home affairs spokesman, promised to crack down on drink-related crime by calling for more pub exclusion orders, by-laws to ban public drinking in local trouble spots - and new beer glasses.

Labour's high command has ruled against shifts of policy of the type which caused last week's turbulence.

This week the Labour leader, Tony Blair, will highlight existing pledges on education, including a plan to use money for specialist schools to keep alive language and classics teaching in the inner cities. He will outline plans for improvements in teacher training, streaming, the closure of schools performing poorly and new powers to suspend local education authorities which are not presiding over rising standards.

He will also promise that 300 new specialist schools, budgeted for by the Conservatives, would be required to make their facilities available to all schools in the area. One source said the scheme would give more choice to those who wanted to study modern languages or, if there were a demand, Latin or Greek.

Labour's initiative on drink-related crime was unveiled by the shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said there should be greater use of toughened glasses in pubs and clubs. There was evidence that toughened glasses would not cost more than ordinary ones and were likely to last longer.

Mr Straw's announcement was supported by Glenda Jackson, whose son, Daniel Hodges, was blinded in one eye in an unprovoked attack with a beer glass in a south London pub. Ms Jackson said: "People with similar experiences have had much worse results. One of the most shocking things about the incident was the number of similar incidents occurring all over the country every weekend."

She said she had received many letters of sympathy, including one from a father whose son died after his throat was cut by a glass while he was having a peaceful drink with friends.

Mr Straw said: "It is my belief, after intensive discussion with the licensed trade, the brewers and consumer groups, that it is the kind of change that could be introduced by consent, and that is a far better way of doing it." But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said courts and police "already have the power they need to deal with drunkeness".

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, will this week announce plans to introduce a "tax contract" under which tax-payers will be asked how they want the government to spend their money. The information would be used as a guide.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, yesterday contiuned his direct attack on Mr Blair, arguing: "The choice at this election is simple. John Major true to Britain. Tony Blair true to nothing." He added: "Tony Blair began his campaign by asking for our trust. Twenty times he asked for trust, and the more he asked, the more I counted the spoons."

The Tories claimed Labour plans for a defence review meant that there would inevitably be cuts in the armed forces if it was elected.