Election Watch 2005: Low turnout emerges as Labour's biggest test

With the media having virtually written off the Tories last weekend, the election campaign noticeably livened up this week as Iraq took over the agenda.

Campaigning in the marginal seats shifted up a gear as the postal voting began and the big parties wheeled out their heavy-hitters across the UK.

The opposition press offices began a pincer movement over Tony Blair's 'lies' about Iraq, prompting John Humphries to maul Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the legality of the war on Monday's Today programme.

On Tuesday the Conservatives unveiled their hardest-hitting election poster to date, openly accusing Blair of lying. In the national press, Tory spin doctors conducted interviews with Michael Howard, in which he declared his dislike for Blair.

The Lib Dems took the opportunity to exploit their unique selling proposition as 'the only party to oppose the unjust war'. Charles Kennedy, likeable and cuddly until now, showed a harder side at a party rally, passionately attacking the Labour Party and allaying fears of letting in the Tories by the back door.

In response, Labour placed the emphasis firmly on its strongest areas of performance: the economy and education. At the same time it set out to present Blair as statesmanlike. His delivery, dress and body language have begun to closely resemble the recently victorious President Bush.

- Charlie Whelan, p20.

COLIN BYRNE

The election campaign has got down and dirty as a desperate Michael Howard continues his xenophobic assault on immigration and hurls abuse at Tony Blair.

But unless asylum seekers are leaping over your back fence on a regular basis, immigration is not a bread-and-butter issue for most people. The economy, health, education and crime are - and they are either Labour issues or a draw with the Tories.

The only question now is how close to the 100-seat mark Labour's majority is and the scale of Howard's resultant torments.

Quite right that Blair should appeal - through The Guardian - to well-meaning people who doubted him over the war but support him on other key issues. Do they really want to let in Tory MPs to make their point? Remember the Falklands? Negative equity? The poll tax? D'oh!

- Colin Byrne is CEO, UK and Ireland for Weber Shandwick. He formerly ran the Labour Party press office.

OLLY GRENDER

Labour would love to keep it off the agenda, but Iraq is back.

The Lib Dems always planned to highlight the issue in the final full week of the campaign, because it reminds voters why they fell out of love with Tony Blair in the first place.

The Lib Dems have also had some good fortune - the timing of the Mail on Sunday story about legal advice and Brian Sedgemore's defection.

This is a crucial week because a large proportion, nearly six million of the electorate, will be casting their postal votes. It is almost like having two polling days. The lead in the polls for Labour rules out the Tories and makes it safe to vote Lib Dem.

The next major test will be the leaders' debate on Thursday night but this is unlikely to have the same impact as the US presidential debates.

- Olly Grender MBE, is a freelancer. She was formerly director of comms for the Liberal Democrats and aide to Paddy Ashdown.

NICK WOOD

Brian Clough once revived a faltering Nottingham Forest by not turning up in the dressing room to deliver the half-time hairdryer. Instead, he stuck his head around the door just before the second half. 'My fault, lads,' he said. 'I picked the wrong team.' Stung by his jibe, the team played like men possessed and won. Clough was playing mind games and so are the party leaders.

Michael Howard's seemingly gloomy assessment ('we are 2-0 down at half time') is calculated to galvanise Tory supporters. It is also intended to spread complacency in Labour ranks. Tony Blair is countering by warning Labour supporters not to let Howard in by the back door by defecting to the Lib Dems or staying home. After a dull campaign, low turnout remains Blair's nightmare.

Nick Wood is MD of Media Intelligence Partners. He was formerly media director for the Tories and chief political correspondent of The Times.

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