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Traditional voters wary, but sticking to new Labor

April 25, 1997

LONDON (AP) _ The shabby row houses and apartment blocks of the Coldharbour Estate housing project hold traditional Labor voters: people who get by with low-paying jobs or welfare payments that have been tightened and cut during 18 years of Conservative rule.

But Labor isn’t what it used to be. Under Tony Blair, its ambitious, telegenic young leader, the party has ditched socialism and moved sharply to the center; now many of its policies are indistinguishable from those of the governing Conservatives.

Which leaves the people of Coldharbour Estate wondering who represents them now.

As he stacked cabbages in his tiny south London store recently, George Powell said he may stay home rather than vote for Labor on May 1.

``They work for themselves, not the working class,″ Powell said of the party that was founded by labor unions to give a voice to workers.

Powell, who is approaching retirement, is concerned that neither Blair nor Major is promising to increase state pensions or raise welfare benefits.

Labor lost Eltham, the south London district that includes Coldharbour Estate, to the Conservatives by 1,666 votes in 1992. Labor could win this year by increasing its share of the vote by just two percentage points.

Although a poll published Wednesday in The Guardian showed Labor’s lead down to five points, every other poll in the campaign has put them ahead by double figures. A national swing of just more than 4.3 percentage points in the election would put the party in power.

But in Eltham, some traditional Labor voters worry that the party’s thirst for power and support from the middle class has lured it away from its socialist roots.

``Blair will say anything to be elected,″ said electrician Benny Down, 58, a lifelong Labor voter. He was laid off three years ago from a job on the national rail system _ part of a downsizing effort in preparation for a Tory privatization program.

Down thinks Labor’s policies, which now embrace privatization and promise to keep many curbs on union power, will leave him without a job. He plans to boycott the election.

There are other policy changes that reflect Labor’s shift to the middle. It has, for example, promised not to increase personal taxes for the next five years.

The government’s own figures show a widening gap between rich and poor _ even as Britain’s gross domestic product rose substantially.

The richest fifth of the population got 50 percent of all earned income in 1996, compared to 43 percent in 1979. The poorest fifth got 2.4 percent of income, down from 2.6 percent.

``When so many are living in poverty and unemployment, it is wrong to give priority to the claims of those who are already well off,″ Britain’s main Protestant churches said in a report on unemployment released earlier this month.

The Conservatives argue that they have cut unemployment, which fell in March for the 13th straight month to 6.1 percent, and conquered inflation, now running at 2 percent.

In Eltham, where cab driver Clive Efford is representing Labor against Tory lawyer Clive Blackwood, some Labor supporters argue that the party has had to change to survive.

``It was always unions, unions, unions _ and no to privatization, which can be a good thing,″ said Jean Gladding, a 66-year-old widow who lives on the Coldharbour Estate.

Her only worry is Labor’s plan to scrap state-funded spots in private schools, which her five children took advantage of.

But divorcee Yvonne Russell, 33, who is struggling to raise three children on welfare, says Labor has the right ideas on education.

``They have promised to cut class sizes and provide better education for children once they have left school at 16,″ she said. ``So they’ll get my vote.″

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