Blair's Iraq 'fixation' costing Labour votes

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Indy Politics

Three-million voters have deserted Tony Blair because they believe he has abandoned them to concentrate on Iraq, the Cabinet has been warned.

Three million voters have deserted Tony Blair because they believe he has abandoned them to concentrate on Iraq, the Cabinet has been warned.

Labour's private polling shows that about 7 per cent of the electorate who were natural Labour supporters will not bother to vote at the next general election because they feel neglected by Mr Blair. They are angry that foreign affairs have dominated his second term as Prime Minister.

Many of these key voters switched to Labour in 1997 and are middle-class people who did not oppose the Iraq war. Labour sources say they are a much bigger group than the professional AB1 voters who opposed the Iraq conflict and are now likely to support anti-war parties such as the Liberal Democrats.

The polling has compounded Mr Blair's problems over Iraq as he prepares for a difficult Labour conference in Brighton next week. The hostage crisis and the security problems on the ground in Iraq have galvanised the anti-war movement. MPs and party activists will demand that Mr Blair apologise for his mistakes and will call for the early withdrawal of British forces.

Labour's survey, disclosed to The Independent, was presented to the Cabinet last week. Mr Blair will use his speech next Tuesday to try to "reconnect" with these voters by addressing bread-and-butter domestic issues such as pensions, first-time buyers in the housing market and child care. He will insist the Government is on the side of "hard-working families" and the conference slogan will be "a better life for all".

Blair aides insist the voters can be won back because they have not yet switched to the Tories or Liberal Democrats. Most intend to abstain at the election expected next May. But ministers are worried that what they call the "seven-point gap" could make the election closer than anticipated.

Typical comments from these voters are: "We have lost Tony Blair to Iraq", "What has he done for us?", and "We don't like the new Tony Blair. We want the old Tony Blair back". Mr Blair answered such criticism directly when he addressed the TUC conference two weeks ago. He surprised his audience by saying: "Even if I've never been away, it's time to show I'm back."

He will reiterate the message at the Labour conference. Downing Street has ordered ministers to deliver upbeat, forward-looking speeches and not to devote them to defending the Government's record.

Delegates will press him to admit errors were made, notably over the lack of planning for post-war Iraq. But if he concentrates on Iraq, he will risk further alienating the voters.

* Only 46 per cent of voters think Labour is fit to form another government after the next election, a poll published last night concluded.

Labour still polled better than the Conservatives (31 per cent) and the Liberal Dem- ocrats (26 per cent ), however.

The ICM poll for BBC2's Newsnight programme also showed that Labour is the most trusted on the economy (45 per cent), while the Tories polled 34 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 23 per cent.