The Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election could hang on the votes of a significant number of people who say they will vote Liberal Democrat next week - perhaps to keep the Tories out - but who plan to vote Labour in the general election.
The Independent/Harris opinion poll in the constituency showed the Liberal Democrat candidate ahead on 43 per cent, with Labour only 6 percentage points behind and the Tory candidate trailing on 19 per cent.
The poll suggests that enough Liberal Democrats could switch to voting Labour to make next Thursday's vote a neck-and-neck finish.
One in five Liberal Democrats said they would vote Labour in a general election, and Labour campaigners said their aim was to convince Labour supporters that they did not need to vote Liberal Democrat to defeat the Tories. The finding will invite speculation that at least some of those saying they would vote Liberal Democrat in the by-election but Labour in the general election thought that this was the best way of eliminating the Tories next Thursday.
If that is right, they may be less likely to stay with the Liberal Democrats now that the Tories are trailing.
This is only partially offset by Harris's finding that 17 per cent of those saying they will vote Conservative said they would switch to the Liberal Democrats if it seemed likely that the Tories could not win. The 21 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters saying they will vote Labour in the general election are 8 per cent of the total sample; the Conservative voters saying they could switch to the Liberal Democrats only 3 per cent of the total sample.
But while the poll is also good news for Labour in that it shows that they have everything to play for before Thursday, the Liberal Democrats will be encouraged that among those certain to vote the Liberal Democrat lead is 11 per cent. Labour, by contrast has a six- point lead among those who say they are only "likely" to vote, which makes it vital for Labour to motivate its supporters - some of whom may not bother to vote - before Thursday if the party is to have a chance of victory.
There is clear evidence in the poll that John Major's decision to call a leadership election has improved his standing amongst existing Conservative voters.
Thirty-one per cent of Tory voters think more highly of him after his gamble compared with only 8 per cent who think less well of him.
While it has had little impact on adherents of other parties, it has also impressed undecided voters. Of these, 18 per cent think more highly of the Prime Minister and only 5 per cent less well.
Perhaps as a result of the prickliness of the campaign between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in the constituency, over half of electors think that the two parties should remain wholly independent of each other rather than work to- gether. That view is even more prevalent among Liberal Democrats (55 per cent) than Labour (50 per cent).
And on decriminalising cannabis - the issue over which the Liberal Democrat candidate Chris Davies has come under repeated attack from Labour - 32 per cent support that idea.
But in no politicial or age grouping is there a majority in favour of the idea.
9Harris Research Centre conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,066 people likely or certain to vote. They were conducted on 18 and 19 July, at 50 interviewing points spread representatively across the eight wards in Littleborough and Saddleworth constituency.
There were quota controls on sex, age, working status and tenure. The figures exclude 8 per cent who would not disclose voting intention and 20 per cent who would not vote.
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