Voters see Blair and Ashdown merging

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VOTERS no longer see the Liberal Democrats as equidistant between Labour and the Tories, whatever the party leadership says, according to an NOP poll for the Independent and BBC's Newsnight. While 55 per cent see only small differences between the policies of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, a two-to-one majority detects big differences between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

However, the poll finds little appetite for a pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Thirty-five per cent of Labour supporters favour a deal in which one party would stand down in some seats to give the other a clear run against the Tories. A majority, 59 per cent, think both parties should fight every seat and give voters the widest choice.

A separate NOP finding for the Independent gives Labour an 18-point lead over the Tories. This is the second poll during the past week to suggest a substantial narrowing of the 30-plus per cent Labour leads recorded during the first six weeks after Tony Blair became Labour leader.

The poll shows Labour on 48 per cent (up 13 since the 1992 general election), the Tories on 30 per cent (down 13) and the Liberal Democrats on 17 (down one). The figures have been adjusted to allow for a 'spiral of silence' whereby some respondents - mostly former Tories - seem reluctant to divulge their intentions. It was assumed that they would vote as they say they did in 1992.

Poll details, page 7