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For British Voters, Calculated Risks

Protest vs. Pragmatism Weighed in Battleground Districts

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A11

LONDON, May 6 -- Jean Campbell was squeezed into a second-floor office in west London on Thursday afternoon, methodically calling a list of voters. With seven hours until the polls closed, she and two co-workers were working feverishly to prevent the Conservatives from snatching a parliamentary seat away from Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party.

The three were trying to hold on to the Hammersmith & Fulham district, one of the most competitive in greater London. Labor won the seat in 1997 when Blair was first elected, but the Conservatives had targeted it as one of their best opportunities for a pickup. "We hope for the best," Campbell said, "but it's real hard going."

Melanie Smallman, the Labor Party candidate in one of the most competitive districts in the London area, campaigns outside a school on election day. (Dan Balz -- The Washington Post)

Scenes like the one in the grubby campaign office were being played out in marginal districts across the country on Thursday, as the embattled Blair fought to overcome dissatisfaction with his performance in office and particularly the anger over his decision to back President Bush on going to war in Iraq. "Iraq is in the way," Campbell said.

Iraq was not the only issue on the minds of voters as they emerged from polling stations across the district. For some, the economy loomed large as a reason to support Labor. For others, the issue was whether their local hospitals were getting cleaned up. For still others, it was taxes or crime. But for many who normally voted for Labor, Iraq figured in some way into their calculations about Blair.

Those calculations were more complex because of the choices before the voters. They could support Blair's Labor Party or the main opposition party, the Conservatives, or they could back the Liberal Democrats, the third-biggest party and the only one running in outright opposition to the Iraq war.

For days, Blair had crisscrossed the country, asking voters not to cast protest votes that would risk letting the Tories, as the Conservatives are popularly called, come to power through "the back door." For some in the Hammersmith & Fulham district, that message got through loud and clear. Others, such as the Rev. Gavin Knight, dismissed it out of hand and went ahead with a protest.

Knight, the vicar at St. Andrews Church, is normally drawn to the Labor Party. But on Thursday he wanted to express his unhappiness with Blair and so cast a protest vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Saying he did not believe Blair's warning about the Conservatives winning, Knight was aiming not so much to defeat Blair as to humble him. "To lessen his control wouldn't be a bad thing," Knight said.

Joan Hamlin was not willing to take that chance. She cast her vote at a polling station near the Hammersmith subway station early in the afternoon. Hamlin, who works for a charity, split with Blair over Iraq, calling the war "ill-thought out" and without "a leaving strategy."

But though she normally supports the Liberal Democrats, she supported the Labor candidate on Thursday. This parliamentary district "is so close between Labor and the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats are so far behind," she said. "I also think the Conservative candidate is quite strong. . . . So I had to go Labor. . . . I just absolutely loathe the Tories."

The Conservative candidate, Greg Hands, sounded upbeat in a telephone interview halfway through the day. Calling Hammersmith & Fulham the "number one" marginal district in London, he said: "Turnout is good in Conservative areas and moderate in Labor areas. We are confident of winning."

Labor's candidate, Melanie Smallman, sounded more guarded. Late in the afternoon, she stood outside the Normand Croft school, a fresh red rose, the symbol of her party, pinned to her jacket, greeting mothers as they picked up their children.

Smallman said she found Iraq less of an issue at the end of the campaign but was worried about complacency. Working-class voters, she said, were happy with Blair's government and appeared motivated to turn out. Middle-class voters, the key to Labor's success in 1997, were much more reluctant to support Blair. Her fear, she said, was that those voters would stay home or vote Liberal Democrat.

"That's the risk for us," she said. "If they stay home or vote Liberal, then we'll lose."

She was right to be worried. Early Friday morning, when the results were tallied, the Conservatives had taken the seat away from Labor.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company