Voters shun Howard's attempt to win back their trust

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Labour is on track for a third general election victory and the voters have spurned Michael Howard's attempt to win their trust, according to an opinion poll by NOP for The Independent.

The first survey taken since the party conference season ended suggests the Tories' strategy of unveiling the policies they would implement in their first days in power has failed to impress the public. In a severe setback for Mr Howard, almost three out of four voters (73 per cent) do not believe his pledge to be different from politicians who have broken their promises; only 19 per cent believe he will do as he says.

The poll of 1,000 people puts Labour in the lead with 36 per cent, two points ahead of the Tories on 34 per cent. The Liberal Democrats are on 21 per cent, which suggests the bounce they received from their successful conference last month has not been maintained. The findings, if repeated at a general election, would give Labour an overall majority of 84.

According to the survey, Gordon Brown is the overwhelming favourite among both the public and Labour supporters to succeed Tony Blair when he stands down. Asked whether they would prefer Mr Brown or the man seen as his main rival, Alan Milburn, 54 per cent opt for the Chancellor and only 12 per cent want Mr Milburn, who was appointed Labour's policy and elections chief last month.

Mr Brown has an even more commanding lead among Labour supporters; 72 per cent want him to take over when Mr Blair quits, while a mere 8 per cent prefer the Blairite Mr Milburn. The former health secretary enjoys most support among people who intend to vote Tory - but they still prefer Mr Brown by a margin of 47 per cent to 16 per cent. Mr Brown is also more popular among Liberal Democrat supporters, 68 per cent of whom favour him, against 14 per cent for Mr Milburn. A quarter of all voters are undecided about who they want to be the next Labour leader, while 9 per cent opt for other candidates.

However, NOP's most striking finding is the overwhelming rejection of the centrepiece of Mr Howard's strategy at an upbeat Tory conference in Bournemouth this week. In an attempt to combat widespread scepticism towards all politicians, the Tory leader unveiled a "timetable for action" of 28 modest but deliverable pledges to be implemented within a month of the party forming the next government.

The most gloomy finding for Mr Howard is that he has not even convinced a majority of Tory supporters that he would keep his promises, let alone the people his party needs to woo if it is to pose a serious threat to Labour.

While a total of 49 per cent of Tory voters believe that Mr Howard would be different to other politicians and deliver his pledges, some 39 per cent do not. NOP's survey suggests that Mr Howard's appeal on Thursday for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to switch to the Tories is likely to fall on deaf ears: only 9 per cent of Labour supporters and 14 per cent of Liberal Democrats believe his promise to be different.

The Tories may well argue they were not necessarily expecting an immediate breakthrough, and know they will have to keep repeating their "action not words" message for it to hit home. But the findings suggest they may struggle to break through the wall of cynicism about all politicians' claims. There is, however, one crumb of comfort for the Tories. They have a big lead over Labour among older people, who are more likely to vote than other groups.

Among people aged 55 and over, the Tories are on 40 per cent, Labour 29 and the Liberal Democrats 21. With pensions likely to be a key issue in the run-up to the election, the finding will fuel Labour jitters about the possible impact of "grey power" next May.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to withdraw from the European Union, has the backing of 4 per cent of the public - not enough to secure any MPs, and way below the 16 per cent the party achieved in the UK European Parliament elections in June, when it pushed the Liberal Democrats into fourth place.

NOP's findings will be a setback to Charles Kennedy's party, which has been scoring in the mid-20s in other recent polls. Although the Liberal Democrats are doing much better than in the last parliament, our survey suggests they may struggle to make a major advance at the general election.

The poll reveals the Liberal Democrats are much more popular among women than men. The party has the backing of 27 per cent of women, but only 17 per cent of men. Both Labour and the Tories are more popular among men than women.