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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Labour launches campaign

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Blair faces electors in crucial local polls
Tony Blair faces his biggest popularity test since the general election on 1 May - and his minders are already preparing their excuses.

In a classic piece of expectation management, new Labour party chairman Ian McCartney has insisted the local elections on that day will be "tough."

He didn't mention the war - although that is certain to be a major, as yet unquantifiable, factor in the voting - but confessed Labour would suffer from "mid term blues".

Launching the campaign in Birmingham under the slogan "more teachers, more nurses, more police" he said the poll would be decided on local issues.

A month ago, the Tories launched their campaign claiming that they could only be expected to pick up about 30 seats in these crucial elections - and also insisting they would be fought on local issues.

That too was expectation management and it spoke volumes about the trepidation with which the Tories are entering this campaign.

If that really happens - and even many Tories don't believe a word of it - Iain Duncan Smith will be on his way out. A leadership election would be a near certainty.

Most to lose

Now Labour is at it, with party bosses rightly pointing out that it is starting these elections from a pretty high level.

If they are both right then Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats should be preparing for another of their sporadic breakthroughs.

In truth, it is indeed Labour that has the most to lose in these polls.

Eight years ago the party's historic revival saw them storming to an extraordinary victory in these same local councils. They virtually wiped the Tories off the map.

So in 1999, when the same seats were again up for grabs, the William Hague-led Tories knew they should pick up hundreds of seats.

But many of them feared they were still deeply unpopular and could suffer another humiliation.

In fact they put up a reasonable show, winning around 1300 seats - enough to save William Hague's leadership, but still well short of the result needed to prove they really were on the way back.

That left them with a few hundred seats which, under normal circumstances, they should now mop up.

Traditional issues

Some experts reckon Labour could lose around 200 to 300 seats, with the Tories and the Lib Dems roughly splitting the spoils.

But the rogue factor in all this is the war.

Many grassroots Labour activists are still seething at the way Mr Blair went into this conflict.

They insist that the fact that he has won it - as if there was ever any doubt about that - does not mean they were wrong to oppose it in the first place.

So there are reports that some local activists are refusing to go out canvassing for the party and that many supporters will refuse to go out and vote.

However, that has to be balanced against the inevitable boost in popularity expected to follow the victory in Iraq.

When questioned about the war factor, Mr McCartney dismissed suggestions that anti-war sentiment would lead to many Labour voters staying at home.

He said there was "substantial support" across the country for the Prime Minister's stance and the discussions within the party had been conducted without rancour.

Many of those who had voted against the military action still wanted to work to promote the Labour party and were out campaigning for the election of Labour councillors, he said.

And, with the situation in Iraq still highly unpredictable, anything could happen over the next three weeks.

The prime minister will undoubtedly be hoping the conflict will have finally ended by then and that some sort of stability will have been restored in Iraq.

The war will still be the issue that no politician will mention during the campaign.

They will be pushing traditional issues like the public services and the economy.

And those issues are always ultimately more important to voters.

But this time, with the fallout from the war still likely to be dominating the headlines, it is bound to play a significant part in these polls.

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