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EDITIONS
Thursday, 6 May, 1999, 18:44 GMT 19:44 UK
Parties fear politics of apathy
The elections have not produced an overwhelming response
A day ahead of historic elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, voter apathy is one of the greatest worries among the parties.

Labour is most concerned. Thanks to the electoral system it devised, the party cannot hope to replicate its position of strength in the House of Commons in the two new bodies.

It equally risks losing about 1,000 local council seats because it performed well in 1995 when they were last contested.

So, it has got its excuse in first. The "politics of contentment" is the phrase it is bandying around in the dying days of a lacklustre campaign.

It means, if the party finds itself in coalitions in both Scotland and Wales and significantly reduced in local government it will be because it is so popular with the voters.

Labour isn't talking about the prospect of coalitions
Margaret Beckett, Labour's campaign co-ordinator, said on Wednesday: "There is a risk that Labour supporters will see a Tory Party mired in chaos as no threat and prefer the comfort of their armchairs to the polling booth tomorrow."

The party is also fearful that even those who vote in Scotland and Wales will back two parties with their two votes. The prime minister stressed the risks this presented.

"If you end up using your second vote for a different party, you will cancel out your first vote," Tony Blair insisted.

Alternatively, of course, you might get what you voted for: a coalition.

With Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at his side, Mr Blair did his best to play down the idea this was what the system had been designed to create.

Still looking tired after visiting Kosovo refugees, the prime minister fixed his best TV smile to insist Labour wanted every possible vote in all the elections.

"There's no point in pressing me on it because that's all I'm going to say," he said.

Undeterred, the Guardian's political editor Michael White gave it a spirited try.

"I yield to no-one in my affection for people who write for the Guardian newspaper," Mr Blair replied.

"You can take that as my most astonishing statement of the day - it's certainly more than you're going to get on coalitions."

Paddy Ashdown: Expects success in elections
Along the road at Liberal Democrat headquarters, party leader leader Paddy Ashdown was playing the same game.

"The question of coalition is very simple: you do not know if a coalition is likely until the Scottish people have spoken," he said.

This may come as news to the Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Jim Wallace who has been talking as if a Lib-Lab coalition was highly probable and, on Tuesday, demanded ministerial seats to take part in it.

But both Lib Dem leaders are united in denouncing the prime minister's attempt to stop people making tactical use of their dual votes.

"The presumption is that this is all too complicated for the Scots to cope with, that they don't have the intelligence - my eye," Mr Ashdown said.

"The Scots taught us tactical voting. My judgement is that when it comes to Friday you will find the Scottish people have used their votes to achieve exactly what they want."

The Conservative Party had chosen not to hold a news conference the day before the elections, so it fell to others to assess its chances.

The deputy prime minister said independent experts predicted the Tories should gain 1,400 seats in the local election.

But Mr Ashdown predicted the recent splits in the party over its apparent rejection of Thatcherism would cost it dear: "The question is how far can a dead cat bounce."

The prime minister stuck to a strategy of killing them softly. "I'm not going to intrude into private or even public grief," he said, leaving Mr Prescott to quip: "Steady as she goes."


BBC News Online will have live coverage of the Scottish Parliament election count overnight after the polls close at 2200 (BST) on Thursday 6 May. Details of how to watch and listen will be available on our On Air page nearer the time.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg: "The UK will be closer to a federal system than before"
Video
BBC Wales Correspondent Wyre Davies looks forward to the first Welsh Assembly
Audio
The BBC's Colin Blane: "Labour goes into the election sounding confident"
Video
Rory McLean reports from Milton Keynes, a snapshot of what's happening around Britain
Audio
The BBC's Carolyn Quinn: "All parties are concerned about turnout"
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