Labour calls on opponents of war not to let Tories in

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Labour is to appeal to opponents of the Iraq war not to desert the party amid growing concern that Tony Blair faces an electoral backlash over the conflict, especially if there is a terrorist attack in Britain.

Labour is to appeal to opponents of the Iraq war not to desert the party amid growing concern that Tony Blair faces an electoral backlash over the conflict, especially if there is a terrorist attack in Britain.

As an opinion poll suggested yesterday that, in protest at the Iraq conflict, one in five Labour supporters may not back the party, a close ally of Mr Blair warned that al-Qa'ida must not be allowed to reap the benefit of the train bombings in Madrid last Thursday.

The former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson told a Dutch Labour Party meeting in Amsterdam that al-Qa'ida must not be "rewarded" for its terrorist acts by creating divisions in Europe or a change of policy in Iraq. That, he warned, would only encourage it to make further attacks.

Mr Mandelson said: "People should take care not to allow their hatred of Tony Blair's Iraq policy or in some cases their hatred of him to overcome their better judgement in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. To say 'Blair is beleaguered' or 'isolated in Europe', neither of which is true, is tantamount to saying that al-Qa'ida has scored and in effect won its first European general election."

A YouGov poll for Sky News last night suggested that the Iraq war could cost Labour dearly at the general election.

It found that 27 per cent of people who backed Labour at the 2001 election may switch sides, while only 8 per cent said the conflict had made them more likely to vote Labour.

The survey of 1,500 people found that 75 per cent believed the war had made Britain more vulnerable to an attack by Islamic terrorists, while 22 per cent thought it had made no difference.

Twenty per cent said such an attack in Britain would make them less likely to vote Labour, while 8 per cent said it would made them more likely to back the party.

According to YouGov, 48 per cent believe that the United States and Britain were right to take military action in Iraq, while the war was opposed by 41 per cent. The poll gave the Tories 39 per cent support, Labour 34 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 20 per cent.

Labour is to warn disenchanted supporters that they could let the Tories into power "through the back door" by backing the Liberal Democrats in the local and European elections in June and the general election expected next year in protest at Mr Blair's stance on Iraq.

Labour officials are drawing up a three-pronged campaign to try to prevent a haemorrhage of support to the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the Iraq war.

Firstly, Labour will tell disaffected supporters that "punishing" Mr Blair by backing Charles Kennedy's party could hand scores of parliamentary seats to the Tories by splitting the anti-Tory vote in marginal areas where the real fight ought to be between Labour and the Tories.

The prospects of Labour losing such seats has been increased by the Tory revival under Michael Howard.

Secondly, Labour will stress its radical and "progressive" credentials by promising a review of whether the Commons should be elected by proportional representation, reform of the House of Lords and lowering the voting age to 16.

One Labour source said yesterday: "We can't reverse what happened in Iraq, but we can show we are still committed to constitutional reform and have not lost momentum on issues that matter to many people who opposed the war."

Thirdly, Labour will highlight a "right-wing drift" in the Liberal Democrats' recent policy announcements, such as the sale of state-owned assets, and tell disenchanted Labour supporters that they are not a left-wing party.

The strategy is in marked contrast to an unofficial non-aggression pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the 2001 election.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, who believes that it is not impossible for Labour to lose power, told a Make Votes Count meeting at Westminster last night: "Depriving Labour of the progressive vote in marginal seats could mean victory for Tory candidates who don't poll much higher than last time, and finding an astonished Michael Howard in Downing Street."