Blair reaches out to expats

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LABOUR's Hollywood luvvies will publicly back Tony Blair, the Labour leader, in his drive to woo the expatriate vote.

The opposition will launch its overseas voter-registration drive this week, which boasts Los Angeles as one of its most active centres. The actress Helen Mirren and the film-maker Sir David Puttnam will be among those adding their support to the drive to put Mr Blair in 10 Downing Street.

The initiative is being launched by Labour's deputy leader, John Prescott, and one of its foreign affairs spokesmen, Derek Fatchett, under the title "Wish You Were Here".

The main centres of Labour activity will be in Spain, where three or four branches will be established, and in Australia, Hong Kong, Brussels, Rome, New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles.

Labour also expects to devote some effort to registering voters in South Africa, where the post-apartheid government has attracted a number of Britons who might back Labour. Cyprus is another traditional centre of British population which Labour expects to target.

The Opposition wants to get as many sympathetic voters as possible to register quickly to allow them vote if the election is in the spring of 1997.

Labour's plans will act as a counterblast to their rival's organisation, Conservatives Abroad, which has canvassed potential voters with mailshots and blanket advertising. Labour believes the Tories spent up to pounds 300,000 in 1992 but have scaled back their operations to something costing between pounds 50,000 and pounds 100,000 for the next election.

Around 75 per cent of overseas voters who took part in the 1992 election were Conservatives, but Labour believes this situation has changed, partly since many new expatriates have left the UK because they were unemployed.

Letters sent by the Conservatives to expatriates, including those not known to be sympathetic to the party, have stressed the government's commitment to low taxation. They also offer to provide a Conservative-voting proxy for any expatriate who has to reliable friends or relatives in the United Kingdom.

Labour is concentrating on a cheaper, three-pronged strategy. Labour MPs and MEPs will be given information packs, advice and guidance for overseas visits. When out of the country they will all be urged to contact Labour supporters. Mr Fatchett said the objective was "to cascade down the idea of getting registered".

Another strand of the campaign is to harness the energies of sister parties in other countries. Mr Prescott recently agreed a reciprocal arrangement with the Australian Labor Party, which is facing an election this year.

Finally, Labour intends to use trade unions with international contacts. Some unions have strong links in countries with a small but significant British population, including Gibraltar and Malta.