Blair's opinion poll disasters could put PR back on the political map

Expert Opinion: John Curtice
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Indy Politics

So we discover Mr Blair does not walk on water after all. For the first time since he became leader, Labour is no longer ahead in the polls. Yesterday one poll put Labour two points behind the Conservatives; another put the parties neck and neck. The next election suddenly looks like a real contest where a hung parliament is a distinct possibility.

So we discover Mr Blair does not walk on water after all. For the first time since he became leader, Labour is no longer ahead in the polls. Yesterday one poll put Labour two points behind the Conservatives; another put the parties neck and neck. The next election suddenly looks like a real contest where a hung parliament is a distinct possibility.

It is not just the headline figures that are bad for Labour; so are the underlying trends. Two sets in particular will have caused Philip Gould, Mr Blair's polling guru, to choke on his muesli.

One of the key aims of this Government has been to give people confidence in Labour's ability to run the economy.That objective was secured on Black Wednesday, the day in September 1992 when the pound fell out of the European exchange-rate mechanism, and the Conservatives' image as the best party to run the nation's finances was demolished. Labour has been ahead of the Conservatives on the economy ever since.

But yesterday's NOP poll suggested the fuel crisis may have exhausted that advantage. Slightly more people (37 per cent) trust the Conservatives to improve their standard of living than trust Labour (34 per cent). For the first time Labour has reason to worry about its reputation for economic competence.

Meanwhile Mr Blair's own perceived competence and credibility have been damaged. More than one poll has found that around four out of five voters believe he handled the fuel crisis badly. That represents a public relations disaster of the highest order.

No fewer than 73 per cent think Mr Blair is "out of touch and arrogant". In contrast only 51 per cent felt the same way after his WI handbagging in June. According to Mori, overall satisfaction with the Government in general and Mr Blair in particular have both reached record lows.

There is, though, one silver lining for Labour. Its own vote has fallen far more than the Conservative vote has risen. Labour's Mori rating is down 15 points. The Conservatives are up just nine.

The real beneficiary from Labour's difficulties may not be William Hague but Charles Kennedy. The Liberal Democrats' 18 per cent Mori rating is their best in this parliament, while NOP put the party at 21 per cent.

"A plague on both your houses" has long been a Liberal Democrat cry. Now it appears we have a government in difficulties facing an opposition that has still to regain public respect. Little wonder that some voters see the Liberal Democrats as a potential outlet for their discontent.

Mr Kennedy may face more pressure from within his party to loosen his ties with Labour. Keeping a toehold in an unpopular Labour government looks a far less attractive proposition than doing so in a popular one.

But at the same time, Labour may rediscover the virtues of "partnership politics". Labour's conviction that it was on course for a second term has been the biggest obstacle to the fulfilment of the Liberal Democrat dream of electoral reform. If that conviction is now shaken, Labour interest in that dream may be reawakened. After all, in a hung parliament support for some form of PR could be the price for Mr Kennedy's cooperation. So the ultimate beneficiary of the great fuel crisis may turn out to be the party that has most consistently argued for higher fuel taxes. Politics is full of surprises.

* John Curtice is Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends.

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