Mr Blair would do well to reflect on how much he is responsible for stirring up voter apathy

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The Independent Online

Mr Blair has still not learnt that crass attempts to manipulate the news agenda and deceive the electorate are a major reason why disillusionment with politics is so widespread.

Our opinion poll today indicates that, once again, the big winner in the forthcoming general election is likely to be apathy. Only 55 per cent of the public say they are certain to vote - a smaller proportion than prior to the 2001 election. And, significantly, traditional Labour voters are more likely to stay at home than regular Tory and Liberal Democrat voters. This may not prevent the Government from being returned to power, but another drop in the turnout will inevitably sully Tony Blair's third - and final - term in office.

The Prime Minister has recognised there is a problem. He used his speech to Labour's spring conference in Gateshead at the weekend to exhort party workers to get the vote out, warning that complacency could yet deny them victory. And in a move aimed as much at the general public as party workers, Mr Blair adopted a new contrite tone. He portrayed his eight years in power as a personal journey, during which he has learned to listen to the people. He claimed to regret the fact he sometimes projected an arrogant "I-know-best" image.

Sadly, Mr Blair's claim to have changed does not ring true. It is hard to resist the conclusion that this speech was merely another cynical manoeuvre to woo back disaffected Labour voters. It was spin; no more, no less. There is precious little evidence suggesting the Prime Minister really intends to do things differently. For instance, Mr Blair claimed the new ethos of his Government would be: "Where we have made mistakes, we say so." So has he yet admitted to his mistakes over Iraq, let alone apologised for misleading MPs and the electorate?

And if Mr Blair wants to discover why there is so much cynicism towards politics, there have been several fine examples this week. To take a minor one, look at his government's latest announcement of a crackdown on "neighbours from hell". A worthy cause, perhaps, but how many times have we heard this rhetoric and these promises before?

To take a more serious cause, we have only to turn to Iraq. We were informed that Saddam Hussein posed a unique threat to the world because he had stockpiled huge quantities of weapons of mass destruction. This was, we have since learned, total fiction. But not only has the Prime Minister refused to admit that he misled the nation, he has promoted those in the intelligence services who helped him to do so. It has now emerged that John Scarlett, who produced the infamous "dodgy dossier", tried to influence the Iraq Survey Group, which was charged with the task of combing the deserts for Saddam's non-existent WMD after the invasion. Mr Scarlett's reward was promotion to be head of MI6. This leaves the whiff of "cronyism" in the air, and further dampens the public's faith in politics.

Mr Blair can afford to ignore such public concerns because, thanks to the ineptitude of the Conservative opposition, he remains well ahead in the polls. But rather than capitalising on the disarray within Tory ranks to push forward a progressive domestic agenda, Mr Blair has decided to scrabble around with Michael Howard in the gutter to shore up his right flank. Thus it was that his Government's only response to Mr Howard's disgraceful suggestion yesterday that immigrants should be screened for diseases was to claim that this was already being introduced. Such pandering to xenophobia has, understandably, alienated vast numbers of Labour voters.

And then there is the return of Alastair Campbell, forced to step down as chief propagandist in the wake of the Iraq war, to help run Labour's election campaign. Perhaps inevitably, there has been a series of rows over dirty and distasteful political campaigning since he returned to the fray.

For all his honey-coated words, Mr Blair has still not learnt that crass attempts to manipulate the news agenda and deceive the electorate are a major reason why disillusionment with politics is so widespread. Until he and his colleagues at Westminster demonstrate a genuine change of heart, apathy will only continue to grow.

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