Blair: I’m still in charge, whatever the result
PM prepares post-poll fightback amid Labour postal votes gloom
Patrick Wintour, chief political correspondent
Saturday June 5, 2004
Tony Blair is planning an instant political fightback in the wake of next week’s European and local election results amid early signs that the postal voting experiment is not delivering Labour’s desired big increase in working-class turnout.
Downing Street has already prepared a strategy in which Mr Blair will be presented as "a man with a plan" and in full control of events. He hopes by the weekend after the election results to point to an agreed UN strategy for Iraq, and look forward to a successful outcome from the final EU heads of government negotiation on the EU constitution on June 19.
He is expected to follow up with a big speech setting out his aims for the public services.
The overall turnout in the four English regions – covering a third of the electorate – holding all-postal ballots does appear to have risen, at least in relation to the 1999 European elections. Senior Labour officials have told candidates turnout is heading well over 30%.
But preliminary evidence from postal ballot returns this week show more middle-class areas, such as East Riding of Yorkshire and Pendle, in Lancashire, are voting more heavily than predominantly working-class areas such as Liverpool where returns so far are as low as 13%.
In addition, Labour officials fear that many returned ballots may not be valid because voters have failed to fill in witness statements correctly. They are set to complain that the requirement for the statements was imposed at the last minute by opposition parties in the House of Lords.
Mr Blair, expecting a drubbing in next week’s polls, is already preparing a media fightback, including appearances on the BBC Today programme, an address to Labour MPs and a speech setting out his vision for radical public service reform in Labour’s third term. The aim will be to crush any suggestion that the prime minister is an electoral liability, or that Labour has run out of ideas.
He is under pressure from some party modernisers, such as Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, to deliver his speech within two or three days of the election results, setting out a positive third-term agenda and scotching speculation about his leadership. Some modernisers argue privately that Labour’s elections campaign has been too negative.
If the results are disastrous, Downing Street is braced for a renewed bout of speculation about the prime minister’s leadership, but believe the campaign has seen the pressure gradually shift from Mr Blair to Michael Howard, largely due to the emergence of the UK Independence party as the chief receptacle of the protest vote.
Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Tory cabinet minister, became the latest convert to Ukip, saying he would be voting for the party because he wants Britain to be more like Norway and Switzerland.
Labour strategists are already claiming that Mr Howard’s campaign has flopped and suggesting that the Tories will have failed if they do not win a minimum of 36% of the share of the vote in the Euro elections, the level achieved by the Tories under William Hague’s leadership in 1999.
All political parties are holding their breath, awaiting unusually unpredictable election results.
Redrawing of the electoral boundaries makes the outcome of the metropolitan councils very hard to read, but the Liberal Democrats are hoping to retain control of Liverpool, and seize overall control in Kirklees, Sheffield and Newcastle, setting a springboard for a general election assault on Labour across the north. The Tories are targeting Birmingham and hoping to regain control of councils in the south such as Winchester and Cheltenham.
There are also tentantive signs from parties that have seen returns that Ukip has damaged the progress of the British National party, at least in the north-west.
Labour is hoping the all-postal ballots in the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire and the east Midlands will boost turnout well above the 24.1% in 1999 and closer to 40%. Only three days after ballot papers were sent out, turnout in rural East Riding has already risen to 24.9%. In Pendle, the figure is over 22%, but across the north-west as a whole it is around 14%.
In Labour-controlled Leeds, returns have already reached 23%. But in the north-east, where ballot papers were sent out late, returns are still minimal. In Gateshead, the scene of a 55% turnout in a postal ballot for the local elections last year, turnout on Thursday night – two days after ballot papers went out – had yet to reach 10%. In Newcastle 12,000 ballot papers had been returned out of 186,000 after two days.
In Derbyshire after the first 24 hours of returns turnout was above 10% and Euro candidates are optimistic that turnout will exceed 30%