Tories `could win election,' say pollsters

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The Independent Online
LABOUR could yet lose the next election, but Tony Blair is wasting his time courting Conservative voters, according to a leading expert on elections writing in the left-wing monthly Red Pepper.

Professor Anthony Heath of Nuffield College, Oxford, argues that Labour has never won votes directly from the Conservatives and is "highly unlikely" to do so now. Instead, its best chance of victory is to attract the support of people in the centre and left of centre who might otherwise vote Liberal Democrat or Scottish Nationalist.

"Labour needs to re-create the broad church that existed before the defection of the SDP," argues Professor Heath. "Labour's defeats in 1987 and 1992 were almost certainly not due to tactical mistakes like the Sheffield rally or policy mistakes on taxation, but to the legacy of the 1981 split."

Anthony Heath is co-director of the Centre for the Study of Elections and Social Trends and is co-author of an exhaustive study of the last general election and of a general study of voting patterns since 1964.

In his article, to appear in Red Pepper's October edition, he warns Labour that its present opinion poll lead of 20 to 30 points does not guarantee it victory. "Evidence from previous electoral cycles suggests that the Government's popularity will recover dramatically." He estimates Labour's true lead is more like seven points: "There's no room for complacency."

On the question of what Labour should do to win the election, Professor Heath draws attention to a new "directional theory" of voting behaviour, under which voters support parties whose aims and values lie in the same direction as their own.

"The voter who is, say, just to the left of centre (the typical Liberal Democrat that Labour needs to concentrate on winning back), will thus be inclined to support a left-of-centre party, even if it is quite a bit to the left of centre, rather than a party which might be ideologically closer but lies in the `wrong' direction (that is, to the right of the voter)."

This theory suggests that Labour needs to concentrate on "left of centre" issues such as the NHS, state education or local democracy, which are also of concern to Liberal Democrats, argues Professor Heath.

Their votes are far easier to win than Tory votes, he says. "Every British election study since 1964 has demonstrated the point: disillusioned Tories are much more likely to vote for the LibDems or just stay at home than switch to Labour."