Narrow poll lead for the Lib Dems

Tactical voting holds key to by-election outcome
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The last week of the by-election campaign in Littleborough and Saddleworth was set alight last night by an Independent Harris poll showing the Liberal Democrats only six points ahead in what amounts to a straight fight with Labour.

In a poll that will give Tony Blair, the Labour leader, new hope of winning a victory in what promises to be a narrow finish next Thursday, the findings put the Liberal Democrats at 43 per cent, Labour at 37 per cent and the Tories trailing badly at only 19 per cent.

Although the poll still makes the Liberal Democrat candidate, Chris Davies, the favourite, Labour hopes that its candidate, Phil Woolas, could yet overtake him are fuelled by findings that a fifth of those who intend to vote for the Liberal Democrat on Thursday plan to vote Labour in the general election.

Labour hopes of overtaking the Liberal Democrats, after coming third in the constituency held by the Tory Geoffrey Dickens in the 1992 general election, could rest on its ability to persuade this minority that they no longer need to vote for Mr Davies as a means of beating the Tories.

Liberal Democrats will be encouraged by two key findings in the poll. They have an 11 per cent lead among electors who say they are certain to vote on Thursday. And 17 per cent of Conservative supporters said they would switch to the Liberal Democrats if they thought the Tories could not win. But even taking these factors into account, Labour would have a 40-42 per cent lead over the Liberal Democrats if it could win over the 21 per cent who say they will vote Liberal Democrat on Thursday but who are general election Labour supporters.

The findings will galvanise the campaigns of the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The by-election has long been privately regarded by strategists in both opposition parties as a critical test of whether Tony Blair's appeal to the centre ground in British politics is potent enough to win seats where Liberal Democrats are established as natural opponents to the Tories.

One volatile factor in the poll is the finding that among Conservative and undecided voters, John Major has significantly improved his standing by gambling his leadership and defeating John Redwood.

A senior Labour strategist said: "The most important thing is to ensure the Conservatives receive absolutely no dividend from the Prime Minister's 'put up or shut up' challenge.

"It is critical for us that the Conservatives end this parliamentary session as down and out as before the leadership election."

Mr Davies, the Liberal Democrat candidate, commented on the poll: "All the signs are that we are set for victory. All past election results show that we are best placed to take this seat from the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats are confident but not complacent."

Labour seems set fair to exceed the benchmark of the Eastleigh by-election a year ago where it started off in a better position on the basis of the 1992 general election result and ended coming a poor second with only 28 per cent of the vote, behind the Liberal Democrats on 44 per cent but ahead of the Tories on 25 per cent.

In a clear, if implicit, acknowledgement that the Liberal Democrats regard Labour as their only serious opponent, the party launched a personal attack on Mr Woolas. A leaflet accused him of opposing Mr Blair on Clause IV and the trade union block vote.

Mr Blair,commenting on the leaflet, said: "This leaflet is a desperate panic response to Phil Woolas's strong performance in the by-election as today's polls have confirmed."

Harris's poll was based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,000 electors.

An ICM poll for the Manchester Evening News and Granada Television in which 375 people responded out of a sample of 510 showed the Liberal Democrats at 45 per cent, Labour at 33 per cent and the Tories at 22 per cent.

Leading article, page 14