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Prof John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde
"The politicians have been fighting this campaign furiously"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 12:21 GMT
Pre-campaign polls

David Cowling

As the election campaign begins it marks just one more event in an unprecedented record of opinion polling in this country.

It may have escaped some people's notice but we have not seen anything like the past nine years since polling began here in the late 1930s.

The real battle now between the parties is for the support of the... millions who have still to make up their minds

David Cowling
With one short interruption, Labour has led the Conservatives in the polls throughout those nine years. This unprecedented record provides the setting for the forthcoming campaign.

In virtually every poll published since the 1997 general election the Conservatives have struggled to match, let alone improve on, their 31% share of the vote then.

Conversely, over the same period Labour has rarely fallen in the polls below its 1997 vote share of 44%.

The prelude to the 2001 election can be compared with the comparable period before the May 1997 election.

Looking back to 1997

Prior to the May 1997 election, Labour had led the Conservatives in the polls for almost five years. Prior to the 2001 election and with the exception of four polls last September Labour has also led the Conservatives.

In March 1997 there were nine published pre-election polls and these gave Labour an average lead of 24% over the Conservatives.

In April 2001, there were five published polls and these gave Labour an average 20% lead over the Conservatives. In March 1997, the Lib Dems averaged 12% and this April some 13%.

Labour's reputation

However, the headline voting intention figures do conceal changes in public opinion.

Labour's reputation for honesty as monitored by Gallup has taken a severe tumble since the heady post-election days of 1997.

That June, 74% of people thought the government was honest and trustworthy, but by September 2000 this figure had fallen to 35.8%.

Also, Tony Blair's personal ratings have been seriously dented over the same period. In June 1997 Mori recorded a 72% satisfaction rating for the prime minister, but by April 2001 this figure was 44%.

But the polls suggest that it is the gloss rather than the wheels that have come off Labour's electoral juggernaut.

When it comes to managing the economy, Labour is more highly rated than the Conservatives, leading them by 21% in March 2001.

Despite concerns about delays in improving public services, Labour is still regarded as the party best able, or most likely, to eventually deliver them.

And even though people believe taxes have gone up under Labour, they believe that they would also have increased if the Conservatives had been elected.

Petrol crisis? What crisis?

Can anything derail what the polls suggest is Labour's stately progress back into government?

The Conservatives may seek solace in the dramatic crash in Labour's ratings in last September's fuel crisis.

It was the steepest ever drop in any party's fortunes - 10% on average over the previous month - and the speed with which it developed took everyone by surprise.

But within two months Labour's standing in the polls had recovered and the recent Budget was the latest proof that the party has no intention of repeating the experience.

At the start of the campaign there does not appear to be any issue that threatens a polling avalanche comparable to last autumn's.

The foot-and-mouth crisis has certainly not dented Labour's support.

However, voters are far from ecstatic about the government's performance and this disenchantment will be exploited by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

Europe and the euro will doubtless feature, but Labour will be anxious to avoid the campaign becoming a surrogate for any future referendum on whether Britain joins the single currency.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, will be determined to promote both issues this time.

What is unclear is whether the passion aroused by the euro in particular extends beyond core Conservative Party supporters and is shared by the majority of voters.

Labour concerned by turnout

Past exit polls at general elections suggest that up to 60% of voters have already decided how they intend to vote by the time the campaign starts.

The real battle now between the parties is for the support of the remaining millions who have still to make up their minds.

And this time turnout is likely to be a real issue with the polls suggesting that less than 70% of electors will bother to vote - the first time that has happened since 1918.

With some poll evidence that Labour voters from 1997 are less inclined to vote this time than Conservative voters there is much still to fight for in the next few weeks.


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