Politics - John Kampfner ponders the election imponderables

The Tories will talk of "the Blair government": they are convinced that, whatever the shortcomings o

At Labour's focus groups, they have been asking participants to name an animal that best describes the Tories. Several were suggested, but the most intriguing was a slug, which took aback even the most sanguine of government strategists.

There is both exhilaration and fear. The prospect of another election capitulation by the Conservatives is growing. As evinced by the defection of Robert Jackson to Labour, Tony Blair can always count on the main opposition party to get him out of a predicament, no matter how low his personal ratings.

If the polls are to be believed, another three-figure majority beckons. In that expectation, there also lies the deep concern. Tony Blair, Alan Milburn et al are straining every sinew to convince voters that this will be a close contest. There is, they will argue, no such thing as a cost-free snub to the PM.

None of the parties disputes the national headline figures, but they tell only part of the story. Much attention so far has been focused on the anti-war, anti-Blair wing of disgruntled Labour supporters. The Liberal Democrats claim they have hived off at least a quarter of Labour's core support, mostly belonging to this group. They are confident that there is potential for more. The question is not: will these people desert the government? It is: will they use their vote to cause maximum damage? This is one of many imponderables.

Evidence in recent elections suggests that differential turnout - the tendency of more Labour voters to stay at home than supporters of other parties - is greatest in safe seats. Where it matters, in the marginals to which resources are diverted, the Labour vote holds up better. Not any more, counter the Lib Dems. They argue that recent by-elections show that there is no such thing now as a Labour shoo-in, and that Iraq has permanently changed the nature of dissent.

Labour is convinced that the Lib Dems' pitch, highlighting opposition to the war, identity cards and tuition fees, is peripheral to voter concerns. And yet the steady rise of the third party in each election, except for the Euro elections last June, counters old assumptions of a party obsessed with single issues. (Note that none of the parties wants to focus on Europe. Labour wants it to go away. The Lib Dems are trimming. The Tories are guarding their flank against Ukip.)

This is the most organised and ambitious Lib Dem campaign so far. It would seem at first glance that their focus should be on the Tories. After all, their top targets are Tory marginals. But this will be an election fought constituency by constituency. Regional differences are stark. In many northern cities it will be a Labour-Liberal head to head. In the south-west, the Tories and the Liberals will vie for most seats. London and the south-east provide the most complicated picture and the greatest number of three-way marginals. The Midlands will see the most Labour v Tory battles.

Strong showings for the Lib Dems, coupled with low turnout by Labour voters, would have intriguing and sometimes unintended consequences. Hence the Labour mantra "no complacency" is more than rhetorical.

Labour strategists accept that this election will expose the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the new Labour coalition. For the first time in a decade of leading the party, Blair has to watch his left flank, because the disgruntled now have a place to go. And yet he and his people remain convinced that they are most exposed in the "traditional" areas of crime, antisocial behaviour and asylum.

"Your lot might be obsessing about notions such as choice and equity, but normal people talk about whether their childcare works, whether their streets are safe," says a senior strategist. This will not quite be a repeat of John Major in 1992 on his soapbox, but the aim is to get "out there" and where possible to avoid the Westminster village.

But what to do with Blair? The Tories are convinced that whatever the deficiencies of their own man, the PM is Labour's weak spot. They will talk less of "Labour" and more of "the Blair government". This is where they, and the Lib Dems, hope that the two wings of the Labour malcontents will merge: on the question of trust. The Gordon Brown quote (in Robert Peston's book Brown's Britain) will be exploited to highlight Blair's trust problem not just on the power struggle or WMDs, but also on claims about improvements in public services and crime levels.

Michael Howard's election pitch is a defensive compromise. The £4bn planned tax cut is by his own admission modest. When Blair walked on to Tory territory in 1997 with his promise not to raise income tax, he managed to turn it into a selling point. Howard has joined Labour on much of the spending agenda, certainly for health and education, but whatever advantage that could have brought has been lost. This will be an election of many negatives.

www.jkampfner.net

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