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The Conservative leader, William Hague, sought to rally his party at the weekend, encouraging activists to believe ...
The Conservative leader, William Hague, sought to rally his party at the weekend, encouraging activists to believe they can win the next general election, as a survey revealed the Tories are starting to make inroads on Labour.

The Daily Telegraph survey (p9) compiled by the LGC elections centre at Plymouth University suggests that Tories are making a recovery even though the improvement looks insufficient to mount to a credible challenge at the next election.

The elections centre has analysed more than one million votes cast in 823 council by-elections since May 1997. The most consistent theme has been the poor turnout, averaging 28% and falling to single figures in some areas.

Professor Michael Thrasher said the 'retained vote' of the parties - a measure of how each hangs on to its main general or municipal election support at by-elections - was poorest for Labour. Whereas Tories and Liberal Democrats averaged abouve 80%, Labour's was 57%.

The survey points to a significantly reduced Labour majority at the next general election, although it does not suggest that the Tories are in a position to challenge for power.

Since May 1997 the Tories have gained 140 seats and lost 33, hitting Labour and the Lib Dems in almost equal measure. But Prof Thrasher said Labour's losses were not a sign that it was in deep trouble. At the same point in the last parliament, the Conservatives had lost twice as many by-elections.

Overall, the by-election survey showed a swing of 5% to the Tories which, if repeated at the general election, would reduce Labour's majority to 60. The Tories need an 8% swing to deprive Tony Blair of his majority and 12% to win outright.

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