The story so far: Tories are closing the gap

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Indy Politics

The long pre-election campaign began in January but did not really catch fire until 2 March - thanks to the unlikely figure of a 69-year-old grandmother whose shoulder operation had been postponed several times.

The long pre-election campaign began in January but did not really catch fire until 2 March - thanks to the unlikely figure of a 69-year-old grandmother whose shoulder operation had been postponed several times.

At first glance, "the war of Margaret Dixon's shoulder" was won by Michael Howard, who created something close to panic in Labour's ranks by raising her case in a rare invasion of the party's natural territory of the NHS.

The row epitomised the three-month "phoney war". The Tories launched a series of guerrilla attacks, put Labour on the defensive and then moved quickly on to the next skirmish before Labour could hit back.

The Tories won several tactical victories on issues such as asylum, immigration, law and order, pensioners' council tax bills, the MRSA bug, illegal travellers' camps and abortion. Labour was rattled. It accused Lynton Crosby, the Tories' Australian campaign director, of importing "dog-whistle politics" - raising emotive issues to appeal to small groups of voters. But the Tories appeared to strike a chord and cut Labour's lead in the opinion polls. However, some Tories fear the party's scattergun attacks have not gelled into a positive vision, and the latest polls still point to a Labour victory.

While the Tories had the best day-to-day tactics, Labour believes it possessed the stronger overall strategy. Labour wisely pitched its tent on the territory of the economy and public services, issues more likely to influence how people actually vote than immigration or Gypsies. Even the Margaret Dixon affair might have helped Labour in the long run by turning the spotlight on to the NHS. There is some evidence that Labour does better in the polls when the economy and public services are in the headlines.

Nonetheless, Labour needed a spectacular own goal by the Tories to help it fight back. It was scored two weeks ago by Howard Flight, an independent-minded Tory deputy chairman who ignored two warnings by the party leader's office that there was "no such thing as a private meeting" before addressing a dinner held by the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group.

His suggestion that the Tories would seek deeper public spending cuts than the £35bn they admit was ruthlessly spun by Labour, which had sent a mole to the dinner. Mr Flight was dumped as a Tory MP by an incensed Mr Howard.

It was manna from heaven for a relieved Labour HQ. The previous week, Labour's claim about "£35bn of Tory spending cuts" had been ridiculed by a sceptical media. Now Mr Flight had unwittingly given Labour's attack the seal of approval. The media turned its fire on the Tories, their morale plummeted.

Until that turning point in the "near campaign", Labour had been having an unhappy time. Alan Milburn struggled to escape the shadow of the man he replaced as Labour's election supremo, Gordon Brown. Among jittery Labour MPs, the Blairite Mr Milburn got the flak for an uncertain campaign. Labour was accused of fighting a dirty war. Website adverts showing Mr Howard and Oliver Letwin as "flying pigs" and the Tory leader as Fagin were dropped.

Mr Brown remained on the sidelines, playing hard to get when Mr Blair tried to woo him back. The Chancellor did not get a formal role, which would have been a snub to Mr Milburn but his Budget steadied Labour nerves and reminded everyone of his strong economic record. In the past few days, Mr Brown has finally assumed a more central role -much to Labour's relief.

The many two-party battles appeared to squeeze the Liberal Democrats, who found themselves in the familiar role of bystanders. Trying to make a virtue out of necessity, they professed to be keeping out of the mud-slinging and promised to fight a positive election campaign when the time came. But they sometimes seemed to lack anything to say on big issues such as health.

Charles Kennedy is the politician best placed to woo voters who are still sore with Mr Blair over Iraq. The Prime Minister tried to defuse their anger by subjecting himself to the ire of ordinary people in several televised confrontations.

Labour believes that the so-called "masochism strategy" works by allowing the nation to see him on the same level as the voters, not on a pedestal or strutting the world stage.

As the pre-election campaign ends, the race is much closer than looked likely when it began in January. The electorate is volatile, the turnout on 5 May unpredictable and a wide range of results possible. The outcome in 1997 and 2001 was a foregone conclusion. The pre-campaign has ensured that the real campaign will prove decisive this time.

THE GENERAL ELECTION IN NUMBERS

44,180,243

Number of registered (parliamentary) electors, according to the Office of National Statistics. Rises to 44,649,791 for local elections, which include EU nationals who can't vote in a general election.

59.4

Percentage turnout in 2001, some 26.4m votes - the lowest turnout for parliamentary elections since the advent of universal adult suffrage in 1918. Dropped from 71.4% in 1997 - and 20 points down on 1992. Turnout was down to 55% in London.

34.1

Percentage turnout in Liverpool Riverside constituency in 2001 - the lowest in the country. Labour's Louise Ellman needed just 18,201 (24.8%) of the 73,429 electorate to win the seat - less than Labour's majority of 21,799 four years earlier. The constituency also had the lowest turnout in the 1997 election, with only 51.9% voting.

6.6 million

Predicted number of postal votes in the 2005 election (15% of the electorate), up from a record 1.4m in 2001. A judge investigating postal voting corruption in Birmingham said earlier this week that the system, changed in 2000 to boost turnout, needed greater safeguards and was an "open invitation to fraud".

301

Number of parties registered with the Electoral Commission - up from 179 at the 2001 election (when 75 parties fielded candidates). More than 40% are thought to be local residents or single-interest groups, ranging from the Canvey Island Independent Party and Removal Of Tetramasts In Cornwall, to the Tax-Avoid For The Self Employed party.

19.3 million

Campaign spending limit (in pounds) for a party contesting all UK constituencies. The limit is £30,000 multiplied by the number of constituencies contested. The limit for individual constituencies is £810,000 in England, £120,000 in Scotland and £60,000 in Wales.

10.8 million

Britons who voted for Labour in 2001, 41% of all votes cast - but, because of the low turnout, fewer votes than it managed in defeat under Neil Kinnock in 1992. Labour's share of the electorate was also higher in 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1970 - all elections that it lost. No winning party had secured so few votes since 1929, when the electorate was only two-thirds its size today. Yet Labour was returned to Parliament with 412 seats and a majority of 167 (down from 179), the second largest any government has enjoyed since 1945.

33

Winning margin of votes - just 0.05% of the local electorate - for Liberal Democrat Patsy Calton in Cheadle, Cheshire, 2001's most marginal seat.

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