With six months to go before the likely date of the general election - 05/05/05 - Labour strategists are beginning to suspect that the ploy that served them so well could now be their undoing. Tactical voting provided the party with results in the last two elections out of proportion to its real popularity. It is often forgotten that the turnout in 1997 was the lowest since 1935. Four years later, the Labour vote dropped to 10.7 million, the third-lowest vote since the Second World War and only marginally above the election of 1987, when Margaret Thatcher had her third resounding victory. Still, both 1997 and 2001 have gone down in history as landslides.
Now one of the causes of those victories may have disappeared - the desperation of many people to do whatever it took to see off the Conservatives. Instead, there are already signs that tactical voting is being used specifically against Tony Blair. One example was the Hartlepool by-election, where the already small Tory vote was shared between the UK Independence Party and the Liberal Democrats. With Ukip involved in fratricide over its leadership, its threat to the Tories may be waning. There is, however, increasing evidence that Conservative voters, especially those opposed to the war, are comfortable opting for the Liberal Democrats in seats where they pose the only serious challenge to Labour. More damaging for Labour is any suggestion that tactical voting might take place in reverse - Lib Dem-inclined people biting their lips and backing the Tory if he or she has a chance of winning. That would be a huge step. To make it, they would have to justify it in one of three ways - that their top priority was to remove Blair; that the Tory candidate was not in favour of the war; or that the Tories had no chance of actually returning to power. Liberal-to-Tory tactical voting still falls far short of being a trend, but it is being discussed.
Michael Howard's change of tack on Iraq, first signalled in his NS interview (4 October) when he accused the Prime Minister of lying, was based on the assumption that the election will be used as a plebiscite on Blair's trustworthiness. The Conservative leader's calculation is as follows: he is prepared to take hits on his volte-face on the war. He is prepared to stand accused of opportunism, inconsistency and incoherence, because evidence is increasing of a direct correlation between the public's attitudes towards Iraq and Blair's fortunes. The percentage of voters who believe the war was right is now virtually identical to the percentage who intend to vote Labour - roughly a third.
Privately, Labour MPs testify to the problem. Several, including loyalists, talk of their difficulty in convincing voters at the doorstep that Blair is to be trusted. They say it is only once they get over that hurdle that they can start making the comparative case between the two parties. Blair, they say, now looks like a liability.
None of this makes a Howard victory remotely likely. The boundary configurations are such that it would take a national Tory lead of between 5 and 8 percentage points for there even to be a hung parliament. The Conservatives would need a swing bigger than Labour's in 1997 to win an outright majority.
Against that must be set differential turnout. There is little sign of a positive Tory vote stretching much beyond their core, but that core has a strong likelihood of turning out. The same cannot be said of parts of the Labour vote. Add to this the tendency for pollsters over the past two elections to overstate Labour's support (in 2001 by between 1 and 13 percentage points), and to underplay in particular the Lib Dems' (by up to 8 points), and the situation remains fluid.
The upsurge in support for the Lib Dems appears solid. In the months before the 2001 election, Charles Kennedy's party had been locked at roughly 15 per cent. Now it is consistently in the mid-to-late twenties, with the prospect of more to come. The distribution of those votes remains the great imponderable, but in swathes of urban Britain - seats with a high proportion of Muslim voters - a good result is virtually guaranteed.
Labour's private polling suggests that up to a third of the voters who backed it last time will ditch the party because of Iraq and what this has done to the broader issue of trust. They will either not bother to show, or vote elsewhere. If they opt for the latter, will they make their votes count or will they merely register a protest? Will they protest in large enough concentrations to allow in another party? Will they opt for any alternative that would deliver a change of prime minister?
Labour's success in 2001 boiled down to initial reservations about Tony Blair being outweighed by continued antipathy toward the Conservatives. If reservation has turned into hostility and if antipathy has become ambivalence, the result could be closer than many think.