Labour aims at Lib Dems as Hain reveals strategy switch

Labour is to turn its fire on the Liberal Democrats amid fears that a post-Iraq backlash could allow the Tories to win the next general election if Labour supporters back Charles Kennedy's party.

The change of strategy was revealed by Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, who warned yesterday that Michael Howard could become Prime Minister "through the back door" if the Liberal Democrats took votes from Labour in Labour-Tory marginal seats.

Labour will try to bolster its position among centre-left voters by warning them that Mr Kennedy's party is shifting to the right and adopting "crypto-Thatcherite" policies.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Hain said: "The Lib Dems can't win the Tory-Labour marginals that exist by the score. But Labour supporters, by plumping for [the Liberal Democrats] or staying at home, could inadvertently wake up with a Tory MP and therefore potentially let Michael Howard in through the back door.

"There has got to be a really serious wake-up call to progressive voters and natural Labour supporters. If they don't want a Tory government, there is really only one way to achieve that in Labour-held seats - and that is to vote Labour. It's important that the searchlight is now put on Lib Dem policies, starting at their conference [in two weeks]. They have got away with blue murder for decades."

Labour has been reluctant to mount a sustained attack on the Liberal Democrats, believing they helped the party's cause by taking votes mainly from the Tories. This led to an unofficial non-aggression pact between at the last two general elections.

But fears are growing in the Labour high command that the resurgent Liberal Democrats could damage Labour at the general election expected next May. Officials fear that the Iraq issue will prevent many disaffected Labour supporters from returning to the fold. Mr Hain said: "There is a serious job to be done in exposing where the Liberal Democrats are now heading. We can't just pretend the fight is against the Tories. They are the main enemy, but there is a second enemy close behind yapping at their heels."

The Commons leader seized on a book, published by leading Liberal Democrats last week, which advocated new policies such as replacing the NHS with a system of social insurance. "This proves the lurch to Thatcherite policies by the new Liberal Democrats," he said.

Mr Hain also attacked Mr Kennedy's proposals to abolish the New Deal, the Department of Trade and Industry and the child trust funds initiative, which provides a nest-egg for every child, and to privatise the Post Office.

Simon Hughes, the new president of the Liberal Democrats, said the party would not support dismantling the NHS and that the ideas published last week were not party policy.The party's aim was to win power in the election after next, he said.

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