Fight dirty or we lose, Milburn tells Labour

Election boss's secret warning to activists. Polls reveal danger of hung parliament
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Alan Milburn secretly told Labour activists yesterday that the party needs to keep up its "dirty tricks'' campaign to raise public interest in the coming general election, or see the Government's 161-seat majority wiped out by a record low turn-out.

Alan Milburn secretly told Labour activists yesterday that the party needs to keep up its "dirty tricks'' campaign to raise public interest in the coming general election, or see the Government's 161-seat majority wiped out by a record low turn-out.

Labour's election boss defended the tactics at a private briefing for delegates, after posters attacking the Tory leader Michael Howard and deemed anti-Semitic were withdrawn last week.

Private polling shared with senior cabinet figures last week has led them to believe Labour cannot allow the election to become a referendum on its own performance but must involve the Tories in a political scrap.

"The campaign is about making this a high turn-out election," Mr Milburn told the closed session, a message that will be reinforced by Tony Blair in his speech today. Ministers faced an unwelcome distraction in their task of rallying the troops over renewed speculation of how long Tony Blair would stay in No 10.

Mr Milburn inadvertently prompted fresh speculation that he could not survive a defeat in the referendum on whether Britain should sign up to the EU constitution during an interview on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Asked to confirm that he would, as stated, serve to the end of the term, Mr Milburn would only say: "Let's see what happens in the referendum." Cabinet ministers insist such questions are premature. They have been alarmed by confidential surveys showing they need to persuade at least 60 per cent of the electorate to turn out in a May general election to secure Labour's three-figure majority.

A drop in turn-out of 4 per cent could leave them with a dangerously thin majority. If turn-out were to fall as low as 50 per cent, Labour could face a nightmare of a hung parliament, forcing it into coalition talks with Charles Kennedy.

Mr Blair's aides said yesterday that the Prime Minister will give delegates to this weekend's Labour spring conference in Gateshead a "stern warning" about the risk of complacency and widespread abstention by the electorate.

One adviser said: "He thinks it is far from a forgone conclusion that Labour will win. "The country could be sleepwalking to a Tory government." Mr Blair will accuse Mr Howard of trying to "sneak into power'' by spreading cynicism and apathy, while offering a hard right-wing message to inspire the core Tory vote.

Liam Fox, the Tory Party co-chairman, said: "Tony Blair's message to voters is clear - they should prepare for a Labour campaign without ethics, without scruples and without honesty. What a sad day for British politics."

Mr Blair was given a boost in his fight with the Tories over immigration policy yesterday, however, as it emerged that Mr Howard's own grandfather entered and lived in Britain illegally.

The Tory leader revealed this in the Daily Mail yesterday, rather than see it unveiled in Michael Crick's new, unauthorised biography due out in April.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, meanwhile, laid into the Tories' economic record yesterday, and ridiculed Mr Howard's promise to cut £35bn from public spending.

"You could sack every civil servant in the land and, to reach £35bn, still have another £20bn cuts to make," he said. "Thirty-five billion pounds is so massive a figure that it is the equivalent of sacking every teacher in the country, then sacking every GP in the country, then every nurse."

Mr Brown's speech was the main public event at yesterday's Labour conference which will close with Mr Blair's address today.

Mr Milburn spoke to delegates in a private session. The conference has been studded with gimmicks, including a session yesterday in which Mr Blair answered questions sent by the public by text or email.

Roving camera crews also beamed voters' questions on to a screen in the hall.

The Prime Minister's controversial spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was staying out of sight and left early, after a week in which he had been at the centre of "dirty tricks" allegations. His return has helped to boost ministers' morale despite the controversy he generates. One cabinet minister said: "It's such a relief to get quick decisions and have that sharp strategic brain back on side. But you forget all the negative baggage Alastair brings with him.''

From another part of the conference centre, cold calls by ministers urged voters to choose Labour. The last time Labour attempted this, a computer error caused voters in Yorkshire to be awoken at 3am by a recorded message announcing that John Prescott was on the line.

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