Voters turning to Kennedy

THE Liberal Democrats are on the march, confident they can overtake the Conservatives to become the main challengers to Tony Blair. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to chief Lib Dem elections strategist Lord Razzall about his expectations in the East of England.

THE Liberal Democrats are on the march, confident they can overtake the Conservatives to become the main challengers to Tony Blair. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to chief Lib Dem elections strategist Lord Razzall about his expectations in the East of England.

WE'RE coming to get you – that's the chilling message being sent out to mainly Tory MPs from the Liberal Democrats as the opinion polls indicate the public is turning to Charles Kennedy as the person most capable of denting Tony Blair's huge majority.

It's been a long, slow progress for the Lib Dems. Their big breakthrough came in 1997 when tens of thousands of disaffected Tories, unable to stomach voting Labour, saw Paddy Ashdown's party as the ideal way to dump the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems doubled the number of their MPs – including gaining Colchester. Proving it was no flash in the pan, they made more gains in 2001 after Charles Kennedy took over the leadership. That time, North Norfolk fell.

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The party is now looking at scores of other seats on which to concentrate its relatively meagre resources. The East of England has thrown up " a number of interesting possibilities" for the Liberal Democrats, says Lord (Tim) Razzall, in charge of the party's election strategy.

While Tory Norfolk South – Diss, Harleston, Dickleburgh, Long Stratton and Old Costessey –needs a swing of just 6.2% to go Lib Dem, Suffolk South and Bury St Edmunds look improbable.

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In Suffolk South, they were 5.3% behind second-placed Labour last time while in Bury they were nowhere in 2001. But it is precisely these types of rural, middle class constituencies with wealthy electors where the Lib Dems have done so well throughout England.

Labour seats eyed by the Lib Dems are Norwich South, whose MP is Education Secretary Charles Clarke, Cambridge, and Watford.

But it is the Tories who are "ripe" for attack. Says Lord Razzall: "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise that if our vote goes up, the first tranche of seats that we take on a universal swing across the country are Tory held, simply because we are much closer to the Tories. Of the first 50 that would fall, 40 have Conservative MPs – that's the reality of the first-past-the-post system.

"Overwhelmingly, in the first phase of any growth by us, the Tories are most vulnerable. In Norfolk and Suffolk, there are some good potential targets for us."

The first opinion poll of 2003 put Labour on 37% – down 5% since the General Election – the Tories unchanged on 32% and Lib Dems up 6% on 25%. If disaffected Labour supporters were switching to the Tories rather than Labour, the Tories would actually be ahead of Tony Blair by 1%.

"Our private polling shows that the Tories are doing very, very badly in Scotland, Wales, London, the South East and the South West. The last lot of local election results has seen the Conservatives doing seriously badly."

"Under the vagaries of our electoral system, it's much harder to win more seats than the Tories than passing them in the popular vote. But if after the next election, we have gone significantly up and they have gone significantly down, even if Charles Kennedy is not leader of the opposition, clearly we will be the effective opposition because everyone will realise the Tories are in terminal decline."

Lord Razzall, contemptuous of the Conservative Party's performance in opposition since 1997, believes it is the internal blood letting and sheer inability of the Tories to properly take on the Government which is making them more and more unelectable.

Even though the object is to finish off the Conservative Party, there will be no deals with Labour at the next election. "We will fight as an independent party and put candidates up everywhere."

The Lib Dems hanker after voting reform, getting rid of first-past-the-post which penalises third parties and replacing it with proportional representation. The Tories are now a victim of our traditional voting system – in 2001, Labour won 412 seats with 10.7million votes; the Tories 166 with only 2.4million fewer.

"I can't understand why the Conservatives don't advocate it. In Wales and Scotland, the Tories are benefiting where their seats in the Assembly and Parliament were won not by first-past-the-post but by top-up under PR."

Without it, Lord Razzall believes the Tories' days are numbered. "The average Conservative Party member is aged more than 66, is deeply xenophobic, and worried about asylum seekers and tax.

"Tony Blair has killed socialism. You cannot define politics any more as left or right – you're not left wing if you believe there is a major problem with the environment, you're not left, right or centre if you believe there is a major problem with the public services."

The Lib Dem advance has been achieved even though they are keen Europeans and support the single currency while polls show the British people want to keep the pound. "On European questions, the public disengages from party politics," maintains Lord Razzall. "The referendum on the single currency will be a constitutional, not a party political, argument."

The euphoria of Charles Kennedy and Tim Razzall must, of course, be viewed against the many false dawns for Liberals and Liberal Democrats of the past 40 years, starting with their stunning success in the Orpington by-election at the height of Harold Macmillan's unpopularity.

The Lib Dems are certainly capable of springing a surprise or two at the next election. At the mid point of John Major's government, no-one in their right would have predicted that within eight years, the Tories would lose seats such as St Ives, Weston-super-Mare, Harrogate, Lewes, Winchester, Twickenham, Kingston & Surbiton, Romsey or indeed Colchester and North Norfolk to the Lib Dems.

Charles Kennedy is fond of saying that there is no law that says the Tories must rise off the floor they now occupy.

But if times really are changing, the Liberal Democrats will need to gain at least a couple of extra MPs in the East of England to make real progress. Place your bets now.

r Tim Razzall, deputy leader of Richmond-on-Thames borough council from 1983 to 1996, is chairman of the Liberal Democrats' General Election campaign. He was created a life peer in 1997.

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