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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 18:38 GMT 19:38 UK
The battle for the middle class vote
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

This was the moment Tony Blair and Michael Howard launched the unofficial general election campaign.

The contest is on for the middle class vote
The two leaders chose the same day to deliver keynote speeches mapping out the ground on which they believe that election will be fought - the country's public services.

And, as far as Tony Blair is concerned, three words will lie at the heart of his manifesto - the middle classes.

They won the last two general elections for New Labour and they have the power to lose him the next one.

And the messages from all the polls and the recent local and European elections suggest they have fallen heavily out of love with the government.

That has offered Michael Howard an opportunity to grab these voters with direct appeals to their self-interest - something that has traditionally slipped more naturally from Tory lips.

Private finance

So Mr Howard's talk about offering "the right to choose" in the NHS and, in particular, recompensing those who opt out in favour of private treatment, is traditional Tory territory that he hopes will catch the eye of these key voters.

It will probably do little to attract working class voters who may fear they will be left with the scrag end of the public services as a result.

And the prime minister is countering with his own version of choice through, as yet undefined, "personal services".

Tony Blair
Blair has pledged reform of services
But he also ranged wider, with proposals to give the welfare state its biggest shake-up since 1945.

We have heard that before, of course, and it always sends a shiver down the spine of old Labourites who suspect it means the further encroachment of private finance into the services - privatisation in their book.

Previously, the prime minister has squared up to these elements of opposition in the wider Labour and union movement - but avoided any real showdown.

Many believe that, with his position apparently weakened in the wake of Iraq and the wider corrosion of trust, he will be sailing into more trouble with his backbenchers along the lines of the foundation hospitals and tuition fees revolts.

That may not bother him too much so long as the overall effect is to woo Middle England back into the fold and stop them switching to Mr Howard's Tory party.

Jump ship

But there is a real danger here, again hinted at in the recent polls.

Until now, the prime minister has been pretty confident that Labour's core vote would still come out on polling day.

They may not all like New Labour or many of the government's policies, particularly on the public services, but they were not about to jump ship.

Michael Howard
Howard is looking to woo back voters
The recent elections suggested that some of those old party loyalties have simply gone. That voters are becoming far more sophisticated in the way they use elections to send messages to the parties.

Of course it is the case that people are far more likely to do that in polls that do not select the government and that, when general election day arrives, will return to their usual habits.

But, for many, those loyalties are being tested to breaking point.

It is that dilemma that has led the prime minister to uttering statements like: "I don't want the middle class to opt out as they become affluent. I want a coalition of the middle class and lower income groups."

He certainly does not want the middle classes to opt out of voting Labour.

The BBC's Carole Walker
"Tony Blair and Michael Howard have often clashed over who is really offering choice"

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