TONY BLAIR has been warned that he will a suffer a disastrous mid-term electoral rout next year, amid a Tory recovery and apathy among traditional Labour supporters.
A confidential Labour report, leaked to The Independent, predicts that Labour is likely to lose 2,000 of the 6,000 seats it will defend in next May's local authority elections.
Greg Cook, the party's polling expert, warns that Labour is failing to motivate people in its heartlands as it suffers from being the "establishment" party in government. "There is now a pattern emerging both of real vulnerability in the heartland urban areas and of Tory recovery in rural areas," his report says. "Labour is on a hiding to nothing in the 1999 local elections, defending seats which were won unexpectedly [in 1995] at the depths of the Tories' plight, in a bad year for the Liberal Democrats."
The prospect of a severe electoral rebuff may have influenced the Prime Minister's decision to warn in his conference speech on Tuesday that 1999 would be a difficult year.
There will also be elections to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies in May, and to the European Parliament in June - all to be contested under forms of proportional representation, which means that Labour will need to motivate its core voters rather than target the marginal seats crucial under the first-past-the-post system.
The gloomy forecast by Mr Cook is based on Labour's performance in the 118 council by-elections held since May this year. The national share of the vote projected from these contests shows the Tories on 34 per cent, Labour on 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 29 per cent.
Mr Cook's report, which has been sent to Downing Street, warns that Labour is retaining only 58 per cent of the seats it is defending in local by- elections. "The Tories are making significant gains, especially in rural and semi-rural areas. The Lib Dems and even the Tories are benefiting from swings against Labour in big city areas."
He says Labour is suffering the effects of much lower turnouts in the local contests in its heartlands, but he believes these stem largely from lack of interest rather than "real disaffection" with the Government.
"This lack of motivation is partly a product of the political backdrop," says the report. "In situations where Labour is defending a seat, controlling the council and in government, it is not surprising that it can prove difficult to persuade Labour supporters to turn out, or that an invitation to experiment with a Lib Dem vote proves attractive. For Tories there is rather more incentive, and ample opportunity to exploit an anti-Labour message."
Mr Cook warns that thiscould cause Labour to lose control of some authorities next May "and have a significant detrimental effect on shares of the vote". It should be countered, he says, through effective local targeting and organisation.
The report insists this year's by-election results do not mean the Tories would win a general election, but they are a "reasonable predictor" of next May's contests. "The trends are undeniably against Labour and it is unlikely that national political factors can be relied upon to change the situation."
By-election results in Scotland have been "the worst of any part of the country". Since May, two seats have been lost to the Scottish National Party and Labour's overall vote has fallen to 25 per cent, about half its level when full-scale elections were last contested in 1995.
Outside Scotland, Labour's main problem area is the big conurbations of northern England where there have been "real shifts" to the Tories and Liberal Democrats. The report says: "The Lib Dems have for a long time been capable of pulling off big unexpected wins in Labour heartland seats. What is new is the frequency and scale of the defeats."
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