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Polls make election clear as mud

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Which party is best equipped to take Britain forward in 2005?
Liberal Democrat
Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Voters have not yet been shaken or stirred in this so far rather mechanical election. But they must certainly be utterly bemused by the figures thrown at them.

The complaint used to be that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Nowadays there are opinion polls too and at the weekend you could take your pick.

The best news for Labour supporters was an ICM poll that put Tony Blair's government party in the lead with a 40 percent share of the vote. ICM put Michael Howard's Conservatives on 30 percent and Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats on 22 percent.

Best news for the Tories was a Yougov poll which gave Labour only a 1 per cent lead at 36-35-23. In between there were Labour leads of six points (Communicate Research 40-34-20 and NOP World 38-32-21), of four points (MORI 39-35-21) and of two points (Populus 37-35-19).

Comparing like with like, on Monday Yougov's poll for the Daily Telegraph had Labour widening its lead on 36 to 33 per cent for the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems on 20 per cent. ICM, after the 10-point Labour margin at the weekend, had the party losing ground-though only to an 8 point lead on 41-33-20.

All the polls come with the usual health warnings that they are subject to a 3 per cent margin of error in any party's vote and that they are measurements at a particular moment in time not a predictor of the final outcome. We should remember too that we do not as yet have any proof that the pollsters have ironed out the gremlins that led most of them to overstate Labour's support throughout the last election.

Nevertheless there are conclusions to be drawn amid the confusion. First is that the Liberal Democrats are gaining support, as they usually do once the calling of a general election increases their media coverage. Their advance does not seem to have been held back by a below-par performance at their manifesto launch from the sleep-deprived new father Charles Kennedy.

Secondly it is clear that despite strong campaigning by Howard, the Conservatives have not developed anything like the momentum they need to be able to deprive Labour of power, let alone to gain it for themselves. They need to be around 10 points ahead in the polls to have a chance of doing that. And they are not, as they had hoped after concentrating huge effort on doing so, showing any better results in marginal seats than in the country as a whole.

Thirdly, although analysts are still disputing whether Howard's campaigns on issues like immigration are actually encouraging more people to forget their previous grumbles and return to the Labour fold there are certainly some indications that the ferocity of the Tory campaign is encouraging more Labour supporters to say they will, after all, turn out and vote. That does begin to look a little like the original no-win situation: the more effort the very professional Howard puts in, the better his opponents do.

We have three weeks to go, but at this stage Howard's position looks uncannily like that of Labour's leader Neil Kinnock in 1987. He then fought a highly effective campaign, landed some hefty blows against Margaret Thatcher, excited the media -- and lost by a wide margin on polling day.

Although some of the latest polls, if reflected nationwide on polling day this time, would give Blair a majority of about 150, my instinct remains that any victory margin will be considerably lower than that. And, ironically, those weekend poll leads of 10 per cent and 8 per cent are not really what the Labour leadership wants to see.

If that section of Labour's core support which has been alienated by the Iraq war, and which remains queasy about other policies emanating from the most right-wing Labour government Britain has ever seen, begins to feel once more that Blair is coasting it they might still not bother to turn out. They will reckon he can manage victory without them and they will be able to have a Labour government again and still be able to look themselves in the bathroom mirror afterwards.

Howard's big hope remains that of "differential turnout" and at least one of the weekend polls that gave Blair a comfortable overall lead had the Tories ahead by 36-35 percent among those who said they were certain to vote. It is by no means over yet, and turnout is likely to remain the key.

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