Lib Dems have cause to fear the Blair effect

POLLING DAY: Ashdown's strategists say rise of Labour will work to Tories' advantage in race for marginal councils
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Indy Politics

Political Correspondent

The Liberal Democrats fear that Labour's likely strong showing in today's local elections could rob them of some of their best prizes in their assault on Conservative strongholds across the south of England.

As Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, warned of a "crisis" caused by "the withdrawal of the people of this country from the electoral process", his senior electoral strategist said a strong advance by Labour where they are in third place could "let Major off the hook".

Chris Rennard, director of campaigns and elections, pointed out that in last year's European elections the Liberal Democrats had come within 5 points of the Conservatives in seven seats, because Labour had increased its vote although it stood no chance of winning. "As a result, the results were not quite as dire as predicted. The question now is whether people perceive more clearly in local councils who the challenger to the Tories is."

The Liberal Democrats hope to continue their sweeping advances of recent years out of the South-west and up the South Coast into the London commuter belt. A cluster of Tory councils in traditionally ultra-safe West Sussex seem vulnerable: Arun (Littlehampton), Chichester, Horsham and Hove.

Most of this territory has been an electoral desert for the Labour Party for over a decade. In Newbury, Labour has only one seat - a defector from the Liberal Democrats - and has not elected a councillor for 12 years. In Eastleigh, outside Southampton, Labour has only three seats, and could lose some or all of them to the ruling Liberal Democrats. But in the parliamentary by-election campaign there last June, Labour claimed Eastleigh as "our sort of seat", the kind of middle England seat the party now intends to win.

Labour is running a vigorous campaign called "Operation Toehold" in hopeless councils. It could deny the Liberal Democrats the tactical votes of Labour supporters.

In a confidential report leaked three weeks ago, another Liberal Democrat strategist admitted: "Labour are currently the 'natural' home of dissident Conservatives." Andrew Stunell, political secretary of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, warned that Labour was often fighting back from third place: "Even where Labour is not running an active campaign, and it is clear the party are unlikely to win the seat, electors are attracted to vote for them. The Blair effect does not rely on a strong local campaign to be effective."

Mr Ashdown took a rather different line in public at his party's final news conference yesterday, discounting buoyant Labour reports from the doorsteps: "The prevailing mood out there is yes, of course, anger with the Tories, but there is a very strong mood of 'a plague on all your houses'."

In an indirect reference to what Mr Blair last weekend called the "reborn" Labour Party, Mr Ashdown said: "My view is that the big event in British politics isn't the rise, temporary or permanent, of this party or that. It is the withdrawal of the people of this country from the electoral process and the growing and angry disrespect for politicians."

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are also engaged in a direct struggle in a string of northern cities stretching from Liverpool through Oldham to Sheffield. To continue their advance of recent years into Labour's heartlands, the Liberal Democrats here too must survive the onslaught of New Labour.

Seats Councils 1991 share of vote

Conservative 4,098 70 35%

Labour 3,824 111 36%

Liberal Democrat 2,225 30 21%

Independent/other 1,980 28 8%

No overall control 107

There are elections today nearly everywhere in England and Wales, outside London. In Wales and areas where county councils are being abolished or reorganised - Avon, Cleveland, Humberside, other parts of Yorkshire and the Isle of Wight - there are elections to new "single tier" councils, to take over from county and district councils next year. With Labour leading the Conservatives by 30 points in the opinion polls, the Tories are expected to lose up to 2,000 seats - half of all those they are defending. Labour should gain more than 1,000 and the Lib Dems fewer than 1,000. But the Lib Dems could overtake the Tories in the number of councils under majority control.