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British Voters Eye Their Choices

Personalities and pocketbook issues take center stage in upcoming national election

BRITISH voters are under mounting pressure to let calculations about money and reactions to the party leaders' images determine their choice in the April 9 general election.

But the fate of the Conservative government may be decided as much by feelings as by careful scrutiny of faces and financial offers.

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The Conservatives revealed their tax plans in an annual budget published on March 10. The opposition Labour Party countered with a "shadow budget."

John Major, the prime minister, and Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, are adopting sharply different approaches to winning the TV image battle.

"I find myself tugged two ways," says Robert Morgan, who manages a supermarket near Reading, west of London.

"If Labour wins, their tax proposals would mean that I paid perhaps 2,000 pounds [$3,444] more in tax on my 40,000 pound salary. But I have the feeling that the Conservatives have been in office too long and that for the country's sake it is time for a change."

The Conservatives are bidding for a record fourth consecutive term in office. Most opinion polls this year have shown them and the Labour Party running neck and neck, with the election result too close to call.

Mr. Morgan, who is married with two teenaged daughters, described the choice on voting day as "difficult."

Apart from financial considerations, Morgan said, the "big question mark about the Labour Party" was Mr. Kinnock, who was "untried in office" and "a bit of a Welsh windbag."

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He had considered supporting the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, mainly because it promises to spend more on schools than the other parties, but decided that it would be "a wasted vote." The tax plans

Voters further down the earnings scale from the Morgans are paying even closer attention to the tax plans the three main parties have been unveiling since March 11, when Mr. Major announced the election date. Some, however, are finding it hard to decide between competing offers.

Mary Hawkins is a clerk in a government office in inner London. Young and single, she voted Conservative in the 1987 general election and says she is "confused by bribes and counter-bribes" from the Conservatives and Labour.

The Conservatives have said they would reduce the tax bills of lower-paid workers by setting a special tax rate on the first 2,000 pounds of income.

"I calculate that that would save me about 2 pounds a week - not much really," Ms. Hawkins says. "I like Labour's plan to charge the very rich 50 percent on their earnings. They can afford it - why shouldn't they pay more?"

Asked whether the Conservatives after 13 years in office had run out of ideas, she says: "That would be true if Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister." But Major was "a new face, and I like him."

Kinnock's "windbag" reputation arises from his unusual skill as an orator. Labour strategists, anxious to play on this strength, have a heavy schedule of televised speeches around the country planned for their leader.

When Kinnock challenged Major to a TV debate, however, he was met with this Conservative retort: "Only politicians who expect to lose want televised debates. John Major plans to win."

But as they wrestle with tax arithmetic and try to decide which party best deserves their support, voters have begun to see plenty of the prime minister.

Major has chosen what for British politics is a new kind of forum: groups of 100 or so friendly voters asking him questions in an informal setting, with the TV cameras rolling.

Viewers saw Major in his shirt sleeves on March 15 as he fielded questions from voters in Cambridgeshire. A Kinnock official describes the occasion as a "nonevent," but a source in the Major camp says viewer reaction has been "extremely positive." Public spending

The Liberal Democrats are the only party proposing to increase the basic rate of tax. Their leader, Paddy Ashdown, says the extra money would be spent on improving the quality of education and industrial training.

Some voters who say they will support the Liberal Democrats admit that neither the party's tax plans nor Mr. Ashdown's image will be the reason.

"I want to see a hung Parliament," says Bill Andrews, who teaches English and history in a South London secondary school. "The more people vote for the Liberal Democrats, the more likely we are to have true democracy."

By true democracy Mr. Andrews means "an end to the system under which two large parties always squeeze out the third." Tactical voting

He described his approach to the election as "tactical voting" and added: "I am delighted to see the Conservatives and Labour running neck and neck. I hope that continues, and I won't pay much attention to tax matters. I want Paddy Ashdown to hold the balance in the next Parliament."

The chances of that happening appear good. Major is the first British prime minister to call a general election while his party had no clear-cut lead in the opinion polls. On the other hand, Kinnock needs to achieve a massive voting swing if his party is to emerge a winner on April 9.

David Butler, an election analyst at Nuffield College, Oxford, calculates that for Labour to become the biggest party in the House of Commons would require a 4.6 percent swing.

"That would be bigger than any in the dozen general elections since 1945," Dr. Butler says. The election would be decided by about 2 million voters in 60 or 70 marginal parliamentary seats. "That is where we should be focusing our attention from now till election day."

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