The Labour leadership last night continued to play down the significance of the Iraq war in the election campaign in spite of new evidence that it had been a key issue among floating voters.
A Labour spokesman said: "Clearly, there are some people for whom Iraq was an issue. For the majority of voters, the focus was on their future in terms of the economy and public services and that is what we got on the doorstep and from our own research."
But one of the last polls conducted by the BBC and published last night suggests hostility to the war was a bigger issue than has so far been acknowledged. The poll found 23% of people surveyed cited opposition to the war as a reason for being reluctant to vote Labour, while 21% said they did not trust Mr Blair and 21% cited insufficient control of immigration.
A government minister said the Iraq war and the issue of trust in Mr Blair had tended to blur into one another. According to the poll, opposition to the war registered highest among the youngest voters.
The Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, have consistently cited the Iraq war as a defining element in the election.
The Labour spokesman denied the party had been caught off-guard when the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives made Iraq a campaign issue 11 days ago. "It was overstated at the time," the Labour spokesman said.
He added that those for whom the war was an issue had long ago made up their mind and that the subsequent media furore last week had not made any difference.
But Labour campaign organizers have from the start admitted in private that though the number of people who felt strongly about the war was relatively small, they were enough to make a difference in some marginal seats.
An internal Labour memo, dated April 30, from the constituency where the war has topped the agenda, London's Bethnal Green and Bow, with Labour's Oona King confronting George Galloway's anti-war Respect, said: "Some former Labour voters (not a huge number - but enough to worry about) who are now undecided have said Iraq is the factor, and are thinking of voting Respect."
It added: "Our premise from before Christmas is holding up. We have lost many younger Bengali men, but there are signs that older men are staying with us. We have to work hard now to firm these up. However, they are obviously a target for Respect supporters."
National polls consistently showed Iraq low down the list of priorities for voters, well behind health and education. Iraq was regularly cited by only 3% of those polled.
But last night's poll indicated that it was top of the list of priorities among people reluctant to vote Labour. This chimes with what Labour candidates and their canvassers found on the doorsteps, particularly in constituencies with big Muslim populations in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands.
The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, 26% of whose constituents in Blackburn are Muslim, found himself working hard to keep up his own majority while also having to do the round of television and radio studios to defend government policy on Iraq, especially in the row last week over the attorney general's legal advice. He even took a senior member of Iraq's new interim government to speak in his constituency.
As well as Muslims, Labour canvassers found resistance on the doorstep over Iraq in towns with big student populations such as Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Bristol and Cardiff.
Labour candidates also reported a class divide, saying Iraq tended not to be an issue mentioned much in working-class areas but tended to come up among the professional middle-classes. In Neath, in south Wales, a solid working-class constituency, a Labour canvasser said he had knocked on 50 doors and Iraq had never been mentioned, whereas Julie Morgan, the Labour candidate in middle-class Cardiff North, said about six out of 20 potential Labour voters canvassed raised it.
Labour seemed strangely unprepared to counter the impact of Iraq when the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives raised it. Labour organizers admit in private they did not expect the issue to remain on the media agenda as long as it did.
The party was not helped by the leak of the attorney general's advice, or by the continuing high death toll over the last few days in Iraq, or the death of Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, the 87th British serviceman to be killed in the country.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005