Labour winning minds in Tory heartlands

Turning tide: Party shedding negative image of the 80s in the South
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Labour is making deep inroads in the traditional Tory strongholds of south-east England.

Local elections and by-election results this year show that there has been a steady rise in Labour fortunes. Big majorities have been swept aside with regularity during this Parliament. Christchurch, Newbury, and Eastleigh - nowhere has proved a "safe" seat.

Then the May local elections saw Labour take a thumping 38 per cent share of the vote compared to the Tories' 31.4 per cent and the Liberal Democrats' 26 per cent.

The question mark for Labour is whether it can upset the by-election form book and supplant the Liberal Democrats as the main challenger at the general election.

Andrew Howard, for instance, Labour's 34-year old candidate in Reigate, Surrey, is insistent that his high profile as a borough councillor will enable him to steal a march.

"Tony Blair goes down extremely well in this area. The old negative image of the 1980s has gone," said Mr Howard. He believes the same transformation of attitude has occurred across the traditionally Tory seats of the South- east, outside London.

Labour's gained 38 per cent of the May vote in an area covering East Anglia, Kent, Surrey, and East and West Sussex. In 1992, the party's share in equivalent elections was 24 per cent compared to the Tories' 47.6 and the Liberal Democrats' 23.2 per cent. The picture in the other Home Counties is similar.

Labour's task has been to attract the votes of disillusioned Tory supporters rather than watch them go to Paddy Ashdown. The tide appeared to turn at the Eastleigh by-election two years ago. The Liberal Democrats took the seat as expected, but instead of the Labour vote being squeezed to nothing - the usual fate of parties lying third at the start of a by-election - the party polled a respectable 15,234 and pushed the Tories into third place.

Eastleigh, though a useful model, is technically outside Labour's version of the South-east region. Kent is not, and there more people habitually vote Labour than do in Glasgow. How many more might vote for Mr Blair's party if it appeared they actually had a chance of returning a Labour MP?

After decades of unbroken Tory rule, Reigate borough council is a joint Labour-Liberal Democrat administration.

Both parties have 14 seats compared to the Tories' 15, though outside observers regard Labour as the dominant partner. Last May, Labour won 34.88 per cent of the local vote, the Liberal Democrats 32.88, and the Conservatives 32.24.

However, party officials are not rushing to add the seat to their target list for a general election. A 20 per cent swing would be needed to win. Much more likely to change hands are the 15 seats in the wider South-east requiring a swing of no more than 5 per cent to Labour.

Acknowledging the threat, ministers John Watts, MP for Slough, and Nicholas Soames (Crawley), have already taken the "chicken run" to safer constituencies.