Blair's nightmare could become Howard's reality

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Indy Politics

The European elections were supposed to have been a nightmare for Tony Blair. But it is Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, for whom the results could yet prove to be a bad dream come true.

The European elections were supposed to have been a nightmare for Tony Blair. But it is Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, for whom the results could yet prove to be a bad dream come true.

When the last European elections were held five years ago, Mr Blair's government was riding high in the polls. But those days are no more. Labour's share of general election voting intentions is, on average, 14 percentage points lower than it was before the 1999 European elections.

Butclaims that Labour was bound, therefore, to receive a drubbing in this year's European elections were always wide of the mark, for one simple reason. Despite riding high in the polls, Labour managed to do terribly five years ago. The party won just 28 per cent of the vote, as bad a performance as old Labour managed under Michael Foot in 1983. The problem in 1999, however, was that many Labour voters simply stayed at home. A 14-point drop from that level is simply inconceivable in 2004. Moreover, Labour has taken some astute steps to shore up its position.

First, all postal ballots are occurring in four English regions, and these regions happen to be Labour's four strongest outside London. So, if the decision to hold the European elections by post raises the turnout - as previous experiments suggest it will - it will help boost Labour's share of the nationwide vote even if it doesn't boost its share of the vote in the four regions.

Second, the Government postponed the local and London Assembly elections, due to be held last month, so that they would coincide with the European elections. More local council elections are due to be held in urban Labour Britain than in rural Conservative Britain. So if the chance to vote for their local councillor attracts voters who would not bother with a purely European election - as history suggests should happen - that will also bring more Labour than Conservative voters to the polls. It could even help Labour to hang on to one or two seats.

Even so, one other change will mean that Labour could lose seats even if it doesn't lose a single vote. This change is a cut in the number of British MEPs from 87 to 78. Four of the nine seats that will disappear are ones that Labour won in 1999.

So despite Labour's best efforts and its weak legacy, modest losses appear inevitable. The two polls that have attempted to measure how people might vote on Thursday, compared with what they would do in a general election, suggest that Labour's vote will fall. But they suggest that the drop will be closer to 4 percentage points than 14.

That means that Labour will have swung to a new low - less than a quarter of the vote. It would be worse that the performance recorded by the Tories in the 1994 European elections and might suggest a deep dissatisfaction with Mr Blair's government.

All of which should be good news for Mr Howard. But one of the messages of recent opinion polls is that whatever dissatisfaction there is with Labour, there is little enthusiasm for the Conservatives.

And voters have long since decided that they can do far more in European elections than simply choose between Labour and the Conservatives. In 1999, for example, one in five voted for parties that were unrepresented in the House of Commons, with UKIP leading the pack on 7 per cent.

At least in European elections the opposition cannot win votes simply because the government is unpopular: it has to have a positive appeal of its own. The Conservatives apparently lack that appeal. Votes that the Tories hoped to win now look as though they might drift to UKIP, who could win as much as 20 per cent of the vote. Europe, it seems, is set to cause the Conservatives grief once more.

John Curtice is a professor of politics at Strathclyde University.