Peter's poll panic

BEWARE the Liberal Democrats – they could hand 71 Labour seats to the Conservatives at the General Election and seriously threaten the great Blairite project.

BEWARE the Liberal Democrats - they could hand 71 Labour seats to the Conservatives at the General Election and seriously threaten the great Blairite project.

This stark warning to wavering Labour voters tempted to switch their support to Charles Kennedy because of the Iraq war was issued this week by one of the Prime Minister's leading lieutenants, Commons leader Peter Hain.

Mr Hain, who was speaking at a lunch in Westminster with regional newspaper lobby journalists, said the biggest challenge facing the Government was supporters believing Labour would win at a canter.

"The Tories have dug themselves deeper and deeper into a hole of extremism and cuts - tax and spend policies that don't add up - and people have written them off.

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"People expect us to win. But people who vote Lib Dem as a protest against Labour, would be horrified if the result of their vote was a Tory MP the next morning, or Michael Howard as Prime Minister having been handed the back door key to No 10."

Respect psephologist John Curtiss had worked out that Labour seats vulnerable to supporters "having a punt" on the Lib Dems include eight in the East of England and 11 in London, two in Scotland, 13 in the South East. three in the North West, six in the East Midlands, five in the South West, four in Wales, 11 in the West Midlands and eight in Yorkshire-Humber.

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"If Labour supporters don't want a Tory MP, then they need to vote Labour rather than think that a soft vote for the Lib Dems is cost free hit on the Government."

He said on current trends - emphasised again this week by an opinion poll for The Times - he didn't expect the Tories to poll much more than they did in 2001. But they could get scores of extra seats because of maverick voting by Labour supporters.

Mr Hain did not elaborate which seats in the East of England Labour he fears will fall, but Labour's MPs in Braintree, Harwich, Harlow, Welwyn-Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead and Great Yarmouth would seem to be obvious victims of such a sting.

And there are four seats - Watford, St Albans, Cambridge and Norwich South - that could actually fall to the Liberal Democrats.

With the polls indicating another massive Labour victory, the Conservatives have seized on Mr Hain's remarks as a lifeline. They still believe that discontent with the Government could lead to a hung parliament.

As we shall see next week, when I point you to an Internet site that predicts the outcome in individual constituencies, Labour pessimism and Tory optimism may be well wide of the mark.

A CONSERVATIVE MP has come a cropper after his regular newsletter to constituents was found to breach funding guidelines because it attacked the Liberal Democrats in Torbay.

Following a complaint from one of his constituents, Anthony Steen - who represents the Totnes - was wrapped over the knuckles by the House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges for using £3,060.30 of his official incidental expenses provision towards the £10,576.22 cost of printing and distributing his Westminster Report.

The committee decided it crossed the line into "party political activity" with this aside: "The Lib Dems need their collective heads examined in their naïve belief that a £100 cash back scheme, which they promised each council tax payer, is any solution" after the Government capped Torbay's tax rise.

Rules on newsletters, introduced in 2002, limit their purpose "to inform constituents about your work as a MP and/or to provide contact details. The allowances must not be used to fund party political activity."

Mr Steen pleaded his innocence, claiming his comment was "a matter of fact." He accepted it did constitute political comment but denied it amounted to a party political activity or campaigning. Nevertheless, he was ordered to repay the £3,060.30.

Tory MPs are particularly keen to let their constituents know what they are doing. Bernard Jenkin (Essex North), David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) and Richard Spring (Suffolk West) send out quarterly newspapers, filled with photographs of themselves out and about in their constituencies.

Indeed, Mr Ruffley editionises his four-page publication, to focus on his work in the areas of St Edmundsbury and Mid Suffolk which fall within their constituencies.

"Every word of my newsletter is approved by the Vote Office in Parliament," said Mr Ruffley. "I use taxpayers money to pay for it and it must be non-partisan."

Funding newsletters from the public purse is allowed because they are a report to constituents on what an MP is doing on their behalf as long as it does promote a party's viewpoint and denigrate others.

However four pages in a newsletter, distributed to each household, containing 10 colour photographs of the MP and his name constantly repeated in headlines and text are certainly a powerful propaganda weapon, part funded by the taxpayer, because opponents cannot afford to match the resources available to MPs.

THE winning margin in individual seats in Britain can be pretty low, but spare a thought for candidates and elections officials in Washington state on the north west Pacific coast of the United States.

After an automatic recount, the result of the election for governor - held the same day as the US presidential election - has just been certified. Republican Dino Rossi ousted Democrat Christine Gregoire by 1,372,484 votes to 1,372,442 - a majority of just 42, or 0.0015%.

Translated into UK terms, that's a deadheat and won't the Democrats be cursing the decision of Ruth Bennett to stand as a Libertarian. Her 63,415 votes are hardly likely to have come from the born again Christian supporters of President George W. Bush. A manual recount is now underway.

IPSWICH'S Labour MP Chris Mole has chaired the first meeting of Parliament's Urban Affairs Sub Committee inquiry into the role and effectiveness of the Standards Board for England, the body charged with ensuring proper conduct among councillors in England.

Mr Mole said: "Every now and then, parish, district and county councillors are accused of corruption, bullying or other inappropriate behaviour. It is important such claims are investigated quickly and rigorously to ensure standards are maintained. The committee wants to see evidence the Board is working well and raising confidence."

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