Apathy is greatest threat to Labour as poll predicts lowest turnout since 1918

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Britain is heading for the lowest general election turnout since 1918, when troops were returning from the trenches of the First World War, according to an NOP poll.

Britain is heading for the lowest general election turnout since 1918, when troops were returning from the trenches of the First World War, according to an NOP poll.

Today's poll for The Independent shows that the number saying they are certain to vote is only 55 per cent, two points lower than in the run-up to the 2001 general election, when the turnout of 59 per cent was the lowest since 1918, when 57 per cent voted.

Mr Blair will take comfort from the poll showing that Labour's lead over Michael Howard's Tory party has doubled to 12 percentage points over the past month and Conservative support has fallen by 2 per cent to 30 per cent. That suggests that Labour is winning the "phoney war" in the run-up to the election. Labour's lead - the biggest in any poll since May 2003, just after the fall of Baghdad - would give Mr Blair an increased majority of 170 for an historic third term after the election, which he is expected to call for 5 May. It coincides with Labour's own polling which was presented to the Cabinet a fortnight ago.

Mr Blair targeted middle England families in his pre-election tour yesterday, insisting on a tour of schools in the West Midlands that education remained his priority. However, he and his election strategist, Alan Milburn, fear the low turn-out could cause upsets in Labour heartland seats.

One senior adviser to the Prime Minister said: "We are very worried about the low turn-out. The seats we won in 2001 and 1997 don't seem to be the problem, because Labour voters in those constituencies know there is a fight on. We are worried about some of our seats with majorities of 10,000 or more where we are finding that turn-out could be below 50 per cent. When it drops below 50 per cent, it becomes very volatile and the Tories could pick up seats we have held for some years."

The findings also show that Mr Blair cannot blame general apathy among the voters for the low turnout. Labour voters are less committed to voting in a general election than either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats - 69 per cent of Tories are determined to cast their ballots compared to 64 per cent of Liberal Democrats and 59 per cent of Labour supporters.

According to the poll, the voters see less difference between the parties, in spite of Mr Blair's strategy for picking a fight with the Tories on Labour's main issues. Just 21 per cent think that there is a difference between the Tories and New Labour, who recently recruited the Tory MP, Robert Jackson.

Mr Blair and Mr Milburn are planning to redouble their warnings to avoid complacency. They fear that Labour voters who vote Liberal Democrat to register a protest against the Iraq war could let in the Tories. Labour strategists are working on a two-pronged campaign, to reassure floating voters with pledge cards but also to shore up the Labour vote by attacking the Tories. Mr Blair, according to one insider, deliberately made a harsh attack on Mr Howard as a "right-wing Tory" at Labour's spring conference last weekend in an attempt to reconnect with the Labour heartland voters who are threatening to stay away.

While Mr Blair has comfortably won the "phoney war", Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats seem to have been squeezed. Liberal Democrat support has fallen by three points to 18 per cent since January.

An anti-war Labour MP, Brian Sedgemore, who is quitting at the election, said: "A lot of Labour supporters will not get out of bed to vote for the current Prime Minister."

The poll, taken at the weekend, also shows more reluctance than in 2001 by Liberal Democrats to vote tactically for Labour to defeat the Tories. More than a third of Labour voters would vote Liberal Democrat, possibly over their anti-war stance, if they had a second vote.

The figures make worrying reading for Mr Howard and his party. They show that Mr Howard's attacks on the Government which started earlier this month have failed.

NOP interviewed by phone 953 adults aged 18 plus between 11-13 February. Data has been weighted to the known population profile by age, gender, social class, region and past vote. Vote intentions have been weighted by reported propensity to vote. NOP is a member of the British Polling Council.