It's too close to call

ELECTION 2003 sees experimental votes in Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES previews tomorrow's contests with Labour fearing a mass stay at home by its core supporters.

ELECTION 2003 sees experimental votes in Ipswich and St Edmundsbury. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES previews tomorrow's contests with Labour fearing a mass stay at home by its core supporters.

CAMPAIGNING is nearing an end in the biggest and most crucial voting test before the next General Election – but in St Edmundsbury, it's the voting that's all but finished.

The Suffolk borough based on Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill has taken part in a Government-approved total postal vote and electors have just a few hours left to return their ballot papers.

No traditional polling stations will be open tomorrow, and it is estimated that by last night, 25% of electors had returned their ballot papers.

In Ipswich, an experiment of a different kind is being tried in another attempt to increase turnout. Residents were able to register to vote by e-mail, mobile phone text message and interactive telephone, heralding the shape of future elections in the computer age.

Nearly 10% of the borough's 80,000 electors have asked for an electronic ballot – but if it is to be a success, they must spare a couple of minutes in the 24 hours or so actually cast their e-votes.

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More than 30 million voters are eligible to go to the polls tomorrow in 308 English councils outside London, 32 Scottish authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

These elections are the first widespread voting against the background of military action since the 1991 aftermath of the Gulf War – a conflict unpopular with tens of thousands of Tony Blair's natural supporters.

Although an opinion poll last week seemed to indicate an upsurge in support for Labour and Tony Blair because of the relatively bloodless military success in Iraq, research undertaken by Professors Paul Whiteley and David Sanders at the University of Essex's Department of Government has found that Labour voters may not turn out tomorrow due to their discomfort over their party's stance on the wear.

"Traditional Labour voters who opposed the war and feel they've been let down by Blair will probably be reluctant to turn out at all," says Professor Whiteley.

And he has this warning for the Prime Minister. "In the long term, we could see a decline in Labour's success. Tony Blair's reputation among ordinary party workers who were against the war will undoubtedly have slipped significantly and this could result in a reluctance on their part to campaign for the party."

If Labour voters decide to stay at home, it could be the lifeline sought by Iain Duncan Smith, the embattled Conservative Party leader. Analysis by the Press Association of local government by-elections in April suggest a 4% nationwide lead for the Conservatives which, if replicated tomorrow, would give the Tories a moderate overall success and save Mr Duncan Smith's bacon until after the next General Election.

In Essex and Suffolk, the Conservatives are looking to take control of Braintree, Mid Suffolk and St Edmundsbury. Both Labour and the Tories think they can win Waveney and the Lib Dems and Tories are neck-and-neck in Chelmsford.

The Lib Dems are aiming to win an overall majority in Colchester, cashing in on the total collapse in Labour support in the borough.

Elsewhere in East Anglia, the Conservatives have high hopes of winning King's Lynn, believe they are in with an outside chance of snatching South Norfolk from the Lib Dems, are battling it out with Labour in Dacorum (Hertfordshire) and are trying to regain Castle Point and Basildon in south Essex.

Nationally, the steady erosion of Labour council election support since 1997 means some of its metropolitan big city unitary authorities could be threatened, including Birmingham, Bolton, Dudley and Rochdale.

But Labour is in with a chance of re-capturing Sheffield, after Liberal Democrats surprisingly overall lost control last year.

And the party could oust the Conservatives at Plymouth, which was last fought in 2000, the only high point for the Conservatives in the past 11 years.

Liberal Democrats and Labour will be battling for control at Kingston-upon-Hull while in the hung authorities at Medway and Swindon the clash is between Labour and Tories.

In the shire districts Labour's best hope of a control gain looks like Amber Valley in Derbyshire where, because of earlier boundary changes, Tories are defending seats won in 2000.

Conservatives have hopes at Hyndburn in Lancashire while the Liberal Democrats are looking for victory at Chesterfield in Derbyshire and Taunton Deane in Somerset.

Although the far right British National Party has not fielded any candidates in Suffolk or north Essex, it is standing in 200 seats nationwide and defending two wards in Burnley. It could see success in Burnley, Oldham, Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent and Calderdale, where they won a January by-election.

Labour is hoping to take overall control of the Welsh Assembly but in Scotland, the proportional representation voting system makes it unlikely that the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition will be toppled from power in the Edinburgh parliament.

The Scottish National Party's opposition to the Iraq war may win over some traditional Labour supporters in the Labour voting central belt, but the SNP's mainly rural constituencies include the recruiting grounds of Scotland's famous regiments, some of which were involved in the conflict, and could see a swing to the Conservatives.

Labour may lose control of three crucial councils – Edinburgh, East Ayrshire and West Lothian – the Liberal Democrats have their eyes on Aberdeen, and the Scottish Nationalists are desperate to cling on to Clackmannanshire where it gained control through a by-election.

Council elections mid way through the life of a parliament traditionally see the party in power nationally given a bloody nose by voters as a protest against Government policy. But the outcome of this set of elections is too uncertain to call.

It was perhaps a sign of panic that the Prime Minister on Monday was forced to use his monthly Press conference to focus on domestic issues, in an attempt to assure Labour's core voters that he has their concerns at heart.

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