Voters 'turned off' by negative campaign

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Labour's campaign for the European and local elections may have "turned off" voters, according toviewing figures for the party's election broadcasts.

Labour's campaign for the European and local elections may have "turned off" voters, according toviewing figures for the party's election broadcasts.

The Tories' four broadcasts were watched by 51 million people, while Labour attracted 40.5 million, according to the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb). During the Tory broadcasts, 1.3 million people switched off or changed channels (2.5 per cent of the audience), while 1.7 million turned off during Labour's (4.3 per cent).

The figures fuelled Tory allegations that Labour ran a "negative" campaign based on personal attacks on Michael Howard. The Tory leader featured in all four Labour broadcasts, one of which was devoted to his record as a government minister to a background of the song "My Way."

In contrast, Tony Blair did not appear in any of Labour's broadcasts. The Tories described him as the "invisible man" of the campaign, claiming that his absence showed that he had become an electoral liability. A Tory source said: "The viewing figures suggest voters don't like personal attacks. We tried to say something positive but Labour did not. The figures are interesting in that context."

Despite the claims, both main parties had problems during what some MPs regard as a lacklustre campaign. The Tories found themselves on the back foot after the unexpected surge by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

In his first electoral test since becoming Tory leader last November, Mr Howard faced a dilemma over whether to harden his party's line on Europe to combat the threat from UKIP. Such a course was urged by some Tory MPs and Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman, while five Tory peers lost the party whip after saying they would vote for UKIP.

Senior Tories deny there was a "wobble" in the Shadow Cabinet about whether to toughen the party's stance on Europe. "The only debate was what to say about UKIP, whether to ignore it, acknowledge it or attack it; we opted for the middle course," said one official.

The Howard team insists it is playing a "long game", aimed at the general election, even if it suffers a setback in yesterday's elections. It is trying to learn lessons from William Hague's decision to "play the Europe card" at the 2001 general election after the party's strong performance at the last Euro elections two years earlier.

"We are not going to make the same mistake," said one Tory source. "The general election will be decided on the big three issues of the economy, health and education. Europe will be a long way down people's list of priorities by then." Labour, too, had internal critics of its campaign, which barely mentioned Europe or local government issues and was slow to get out of the starting blocks.

"When it began, I found it hard to detect any real strategy," one minister said yesterday. "We said a lot about Michael Howard and the threat of 'Tory cuts' but we didn't say much about ourselves."

With a low turnout expected, the strategy of both parties was to mobilise core supporters rather than appeal to the floating voters who will be in their sights at the general election.