By Glenn Frankel and Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 5, 2005
LONDON, May 4 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair toured the country on the last day of his effort to win a historic third term in nationwide elections on Thursday. Polling indicated that his governing Labor Party would triumph, but with a reduced majority that reflects public disaffection with Blair's support for the war in Iraq.
The leaders of the three main parties campaigned feverishly Wednesday in a number of districts that public opinion polls suggest remain up for grabs. Analysts project that about 1 million voters in those areas, known as marginal districts, hold the key to victory out of a total electorate of between 25 million and 30 million.
Blair and his senior cabinet members fanned out across the country, extolling the government's economic record and its stewardship of public services such as schools and the public health system. At a morning news conference, Blair surrounded himself with cabinet secretaries in an attempt to woo back disillusioned voters. He warned that voters who were tempted to "give Blair a bloody nose" by abstaining or by voting for the third-party Liberal Democrats could wind up inadvertently helping the Conservative Party return to power.
"We haven't won this thing yet," Blair told reporters, "and in the marginals, it is tight and tough."
Michael Howard, the Conservative leader who has been slipping in recent polls, insisted his party could still triumph. As he campaigned in southeast England, Howard stuck to his basic themes -- more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, controlled immigration and school discipline -- subjects he has emphasized from the beginning in his tightly controlled campaign.
Meanwhile, Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats, who have been slowly rising in the polls, insisted his party represented "the real alternative" to Labor. He derided Blair's claims that a vote for the third party would "let the Tories," as the Conservatives are known, "in by the back door."
"Let's have none of this Tony Blair nonsense," Kennedy told reporters. "He has cried wolf one too many times with the British public."
Each party expressed anxiety about the elections. Labor remains concerned that some supporters, convinced that the party is a shoo-in, could decide it is safe to register a protest vote against Blair. His ratings among the public on questions about trust have fallen because he is widely perceived to have misled Parliament and the public in taking Britain to war.
But Howard, a veteran politician with little personal charisma, has failed to gain traction. His platform -- based on "dog-whistle issues" designed to attract Conservative voters without awakening resistance from other parts of the electorate -- has proven unpopular and has driven previously undecided left-of-center and moderate voters back to Labor.
"If this election was just a referendum on Tony Blair and Iraq, then Labor would lose, but Michael Howard is even less popular than Blair is," said Peter Kellner, chairman of the YouGov polling group. "A lot of people will do anything in their power to punish Tony Blair -- anything except vote for the Tories."
The Liberal Democrats have gained support, but even with an increased share of the national vote they may fall short of adding many parliamentary seats because their supporters are widely dispersed.
Despite the last-minute frenzy, there was little sign of the campaign in many parts of Britain. Interviews with voters in recent days underscored the dissatisfaction with Blair and the sense of having no one else to turn to at the polls.
Chris Christou, who lives in the north London suburb of Enfield, a marginal district, laid out a list of grievances when he was contacted by Labor canvassers over the weekend, from complaints about the National Health Service to his belief that Britain and the United States were bullying other countries. But he said he was likely to stay with Labor. Blair, he said, was "the lesser of two evils."
Sal Rashid, who lives in the eastern seaport of Dover, said Labor needed to take the issue of immigration more seriously but said he would stick with Blair because of Britain's strong economy. "People might not have agreed with him on the war, but the economy is thriving," Rashid said. "All the European countries envy Britain."
But Conservative candidates in some competitive districts predicted the party would outperform the polls and claimed that the campaign had been better run this year than in the past, with more precise targeting of voters and more sophisticated techniques for outreach.
"This is my third general election and I've never seen such a targeted campaign. It is meant to deliver," said Paul Watkins, the Conservative challenger in Dover. "We have Republican election techniques backed up by Australian bloody-mindedness at selling the message. We're not wasting time on groups that aren't going to vote for us."
All sides agree that Labor has a built-in advantage because of the way parliamentary districts have been drawn, and that the Conservatives would have to gain a disproportionate increase in the national vote to have a shot at winning a majority of the seats up for election in the House of Commons. At the same time, each side is wary of new rules for absentee voting by mail, which could increase prospects for fraud. Two people have been arrested so far on allegations of vote-rigging.
In 2001, Labor won 41 percent of the vote nationally, compared to 32 percent for the Conservatives and 18 percent for the Liberal Democrats. Analysts expect Labor's share to drop and the Tories' share to remain static. Blair, who was first elected in 1997, is already the longest serving prime minister in Labor's 100-year history.