LONDON -- Britain is moving into the final stage of one of the tightest electoral campaigns in its modern history, with the Labor Party holding a slight lead in the polls over the incumbent Conservatives.
Three of four polls published in today's major newspapers gave Labor a two-point lead over the Conservatives. Only one, a poll in the Sunday Telegraph, showed the parties even.
The apprehension now is that Thursday's election will produce a hung Parliament, with none of the parties having the necessary 326-seat majority in the House of Commons to govern on its own.
Thus, Paddy Ashdown, leader of the smallest of the three major parties, the Liberal Democrats, has assumed an uncommon and unexpected importance. Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labor Party, has already sent out feelers to him, presumably with the aim of forming a coalition government should Labor not win a majority.
Last week the Liberal Democrats moved up in the polls and were believed to be taking prospective votes from the Conservatives. Prime Minister John Major, at least, interpreted it that way, warning that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would guarantee a Labor government.
He derided them as Labor's "Trojan horse."
LTC The surge of the Liberal Democrats also brought to the top of the agenda the single most important item on Mr. Ashdown's list of requirements for cooperation: a system of proportional representation for future elections, replacing the current winner-take-all-system.
Proportional representation would increase the number of Liberal Democratic members of Parliament, because, as one party member put it, "the proportion of seats would reflect the number of votes cast."
The party held only 22 of the 650 seats in the recently dissolved Parliament, a number that does not correspond to the nearly 20 percent of its electoral support. Under proportional representation, it would have had about 130 seats.
Mr. Major rejects proportional representation, calling it a formula for weak government. It would also introduce into the House of Commons some extremist parties.
The Labor Party's gesture to Mr. Ashdown was a promise to carry out a thorough examination of its practicality in Britain. But Mr. Ashdown was still holding out for a firm commitment on proportional representation from Labor.
Mr. Ashdown, who was elected to Parliament in 1983, assumed the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 1988, when the new party was formed from remnants of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.