Labour alarm bells start to ring

Tony Blair has achieved a temporary respite in the latest opinion poll. But as MPs go back to work in the Commons, Political Editor GRAHAM DINES asks why Labour seems so fearful of the Conservatives.

Tony Blair has achieved a temporary respite in the latest opinion poll. But as MPs go back to work in the Commons, Political Editor GRAHAM DINES asks why Labour seems so fearful of the Conservatives.

DESPITE the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and the revelations at the Hutton inquiry into the death of Government scientist Dr David Kelly, Tony Blair seems to have won a reprieve in the polls.

With MPs returning to work this week at Westminster, a Populus poll for The Times places Labour on 39%, up five points on a month ago, with the Tories two points up at 34%. The Liberal Democrats, at 19%, are down six points – their lowest rating for more than 18 months.

Both main parties have advanced at the expense of the Lib Dems, who seem to be squeezed as politics becomes polarised between Labour and the Conservatives.

That the Tories are not streets ahead of Labour in the polls is hardly surprising. The Conservatives seem to have adopted their leader Iain Duncan Smith's mantle and become a party of silent men and women during the parliamentary recess, perhaps hoping that the Prime Minister's and Labour's discomfort during the Hutton inquiry would give them a lift.

That hasn't happened, even though the Government now admits it has a problem with winning the trust of the general public.

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Health Secretary John Reid, one of the most capable of Tony Blair's Cabinet ministers, said in a television interview: "Do I think that we have a problem with trust? Yes we do have a problem with trust. We have had to change. We did what we had to do to prevent our case being misrepresented and our leader and the Prime Minister being maligned in the way it was.

"That serves for a while, but after a while you have to change that and you have to become more open."

Yet despite the apparent buoyancy of Labour, the party is getting distinctly jittery at the revival of Conservative fortunes, and it has led to a Cabinet minister and a top party official sounding the alarm.

The pre Conference issue of magazine Progress – a soft left Blairite publication aimed at "a diverse and inclusive group of Labour Party members and trade unionists united in our commitment to democratic socialism" – is distinctly sanguine at the prospects for the next election.

Commons Leader Peter Hain says the Government must adopt a "more visionary approach" to policy or face low turn-out and the risk of Tory success at the next General Election. He warns the Conservatives are "slowly but surely" getting their act together and pose an increasing threat to New Labour.

He predicts that turnout will be lower than at the last election unless Labour sets out its agenda as clearly, and as soon, as possible. "I think there is a great danger that if we are just seen as another set of politicians managing society, then people may say, `We'll have a look at a different set of politicians'."

In the same issue, Labour's head of political intelligence Greg Cooke, says that in the wake of the last two elections, the task facing the Tories "may appear" impossible. The stark statistics are that Iain Duncan Smith must make 124 net gains from Labour to become the largest party and need to double the number of their MPs and make 164 gains for a majority of even one – more than Labour achieved in 1997.

This requires a uniform swing of 9.6% and does not reflect the impact of the Liberal Democrats. But Cooke argues: "The Lib Dems have now almost exhausted the pool of vulnerable Conservatives – indeed they lose 17 seats on a modest switch of one in 10 of their voters to the Conservatives.

"Progress against Labour looks equally problematic. There are only 12 Labour seats where they are less than 20% behind, including some where the Conservatives are in second place.

"In reality, the Conservatives' electoral bind is probably rather less daunting than it seems. Any electoral breakthrough that they make in attracting previous Labour or Liberal Democrat voters is very likely to occur disproportionately in the marginal seats where it will matter most."

Cooke warns: "The danger in 2005/2006 is not of some unlikely new surge to the Conservatives, ejecting Labour in another of those seminal elections. Much more insidious is the prospect of gradual fragmentation – disengagement, declining turnout, a narrowing of the Labour lead and an inconclusive election."

These are strong words from such a top guy in the Labour hierarchy – and not good reading for MPs Ivan Henderson in Harwich, Alan Hurst in Braintree and Tony Wright in Great Yarmouth, or the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in charge at Suffolk county council.

And the polling evidence seems Labour's fear of a Tory revival, however modest, could be well founded. The fall of six points in Lib Dem support can only benefit the Conservatives.

If the Conservatives can start winning back voters who defected to the Lib Dems – especially in rural areas – they will gain scores of marginal seats, as Greg Cooke predicts.

Next week's by-election in heavily Labour Brent East will not be a true reflection of party strengths. With more than 20,000 ethnic electors, it's likely that any voter hostility with Labour will go to the Lib Dems in a seat that covers Kilburn, Cricklewood and Willesden.

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