Most voters think Britain will be no better off, yet still want a new government, reports Philip Cowley
At their morning press conferences, Labour politicians shuffle awkwardly on stage as the D:REAM song "Things can only get better" booms out around them. The evidence from the polls, though, suggests that the public have noticeably lower expectations. Things, people seem to think, might stay the same, they might even get a bit worse, but they are unlikely to get much better.

This isn't half as catchy, but it is a better explanation of what is going on.

Just 31 per cent of people think they will be better off under a Labour government, according to the latest Gallup figures. That is exactly the same as in March 1992. However, the number who replied that they thought things would stay the same has risen from 29 per cent (in March 1992) to a remarkable 41 per cent. Less than three weeks before the predicted landslide, people are no more optimistic about the future under Labour than they were last time.

Similarly, last year Gallup asked people what effect they thought a Labour government would have on their levels of economic security. Forty-five per cent thought it would make no difference, and a further 10 per cent did not know one way or the other. Just 18 per cent thought that Labour would make a positive impact.

This lack of enthusiasm may stem from a belief that the parties are so similar that it will make no difference whichever is in government.

At each election since 1955, Gallup has asked people whether they can see an important difference between the parties, or whether they are - in Gallup's words - "all much of a muchness".

In some elections - such as those in 1983 and 1987 - the public have seen oceans of clear water between the parties. In others - such as in 1955, both elections in 1974, and 1979 - the difference was not seen as great. But in every election since 1955, those who thought that there was a difference have outnumbered those who thought there was not.

The latest polls suggest that 1997 will be the first election where this does not hold. Some 50 per cent of people currently claim there is no difference between the parties, compared with 46 per cent who think that there is. Thursday night's MORI poll for ITN showed that almost four- fifths of people thought taxes would go up whoever won.

If Labour's aim has been to lower expectations they have clearly succeeded.

Although, according to Gallup, the public trust Mr Blair to keep his promises, they do not actually expect his promises to make any difference. Britain might well deserve better, but the public do not seem to think they will get it under Labour.

Indeed, despite a general impression that the parties are now "much of a muchness", the more detailed evidence from the polls suggests that, underneath, the public still have considerable qualms about what might happen under Labour.

In February, Gallup asked people whether they shared any of a list of 12 concerns about what might happen if Labour were to win, ranging from "Under Labour there might be a lot more strikes and industrial disputes as there were in the 1970s" to "There might be too many regulations, too much bureaucracy and too many controls on people's behaviour generally".

On every question except two, the majority of those who expressed a preference - and there were very few who did not - shared one of the concerns.

The chief concern - held by 72 per cent of people - was that inflation would go up. Second, with 67 per cent, came fear that Labour might "hand a lot of control of our own affairs over to the European Union and Brussels". Next came worries about the social chapter costing jobs (64 per cent) and taxes going up so much that people would be "squeezed financially" (60 per cent).

At first sight these figures look like the sort of stuff to cheer Dr Mawhinney. They are exactly the fears that the Conservatives have been trying to play on. Yet what is remarkable is that despite the public's lack of faith in Labour they still seem willing to vote for them in droves.

Every poll since the campaign began - including the MORI poll published in the Times on Thursday, under the somewhat hysterical headline "Labour poll lead slashed by the Tories" - has actually seen the Labour vote fluctuate by no more than the standard sampling error of three points either side of 47 per cent (if measured by ICM) or 52 per cent (if measured by everyone else).

And the Labour vote appears to be the most solid: 72 per cent of potential Labour voters told ICM they had definitely decided to vote that way, compared with 64 per cent of Conservative voters, and just 42 per cent of Liberal Democrats.

What is even more surprising is that the figures show a remarkable change had occurred since August 1996, when Gallup had last presented the public with its list of 12 concerns about Labour. Then there had been just two issues - taxation and inflation - where those who said they were concerned outnumbered those who were not, and in both cases the gap had not been large. In the four intervening months, voters' fears about Labour had noticeably hardened. Yet the Labour vote had not suffered as a result.

The explanation appears to lie in the extent of anti-Conservative sentiment rather than in any positive endorsement of Labour.

Before the last election, Gallup asked people whether they thought that, whatever their views about Labour, "they couldn't do any worse than the present lot". This proposition was agreed to by 32 per cent, but a solid 40 per cent disagreed (with another 24 per cent saying they had only a little sympathy with such a view). But when Gallup asked the question more recently, they found that the roles had reversed. Almost 70 per cent of people now think that Labour could not be worse than the present government.

Before the last election, fewer than a third of the population said they had a lot of sympathy with the view that it was time for a change. Again, 40 per cent of people disagreed. Now that figure is down to fewer than 20 per cent.

It appears, then, as if few people particularly want Labour to win. They just want the Conservatives to lose.

The writer teaches politics at the University of Hull.

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