The Liberal Democrats have lost the support of almost four in 10 of the people who backed the party in May, according to an opinion poll for The Independent.
More than one in five people who voted for Nick Clegg's party at the general election say they would now vote Labour, the ComRes poll shows. Only 62 per cent of those who voted Liberal Democrat would do so again were another election held today.
The proportion of Liberal Democrat voters who say they would now vote Labour has risen from 15 to 22 per cent since last month, suggesting that Labour is reaping the benefit from the Liberal Democrats' decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives. A further seven per cent would switch to the Tories.
However, there will be relief among the Liberal Democrat leadership that the party appears to have halted the freefall in its ratings since May, when it won 23 per cent of the votes. The Liberal Democrats had slipped to 16 per cent, but according to ComRes, its support has stabilised and risen to 18 per cent. The Tories, on 38 per cent, are down one point while Labour, on 34 per cent, is up one point. Privately, both Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs fear that Labour will be ahead in the polls by the end of the year as the scale of the public spending cuts to be announced next month sinks in. "It's going to be a bumpy ride, we'll go down before we bounce back," one Liberal Democrat MP predicted. A Tory source added: "I would be amazed if Labour is not ahead by Christmas."
There are signs that men are more opposed than women to the Liberal Democrats' decision to join forces with the Tories. ComRes found that only 15 per cent of men would vote Liberal Democrat in a general election today, compared to 21 per cent of women. Tory support is also unevenly split between the sexes: 41 per cent of men and 34 per cent of women would now vote for David Cameron's party.
Lower income groups appear to be turning their backs on the Liberal Democrats, whose rating is only 12 per cent among the bottom DE social group and 11 per cent among the C2 skilled manual workers.
However, Labour appears to be struggling to stay above the 30 per cent mark among more affluent voters – a finding that will worry Blairites, who accuse some candidates in the party's leadership election of preaching to its core working class vote. Labour now enjoys only 29 per cent support among the top AB social group and 28 among the next C1 group.
David Blunkett, the former Labour cabinet minister, warned that the party will not regain power by taking a left turn. He said: "We've got to win some of the people who voted for other parties – particularly those who went off to the Conservatives – rather than deluding ourselves that there's a comfortable group of people out there who just want a leftish party and want us to be more vigorously left – if that were the truth we would have won in 1983."
He was being interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 programme to be broadcast tonight, Labour Saving Devices, about how the party should fight back after its defeat this year.
It includes some unflattering verdicts on the five candidates running for the leadership. Jon Cruddas, an influential backbencher on the left of the party who is backing David Miliband, said: "None of them is the finished article. I think hopefully they'd all acknowledge that as well because they haven't had the time to do that sort of process of political definition."
Bryan Gould, a former MP who contested the Labour leadership in 1992, suggested that the winner of this month's leadership election will not become prime minister. He told the programme: "I'm sorry to say I somewhat suspect that whoever emerges from the leadership election will be a stand-in leader. And that we will then await a new leader representing a new generation, or a new strand of thought in the party, not tainted by new Labour, not new or old Labour but just Labour. And that new leader will, I think, then have a chance of winning a future general election."
ComRes telephoned a random sample of 1,000 British adults between 3 and 5 September 2010. Data were weighted demographically and by past vote. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk