Voters see Blair as leader of centre

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's claim to have taken over the centre ground of British politics has been boosted by research showing voters see themselves as much closer to Labour than the Conservatives on key policy issues.

Voters see themselves as close to Labour even on Europe, traditionally a strong Tory issue and one they hope to exploit in the election. The study, by John Curtice, senior lecturer at Strathclyde University, suggests Tory divisions on the issue mean they are not benefiting from the growing Euro-scepticism of the public.

At the last election voters tended to place themselves halfway between Labour and the Tories on most policies, but since then Labour is perceived to have moved towards the centre, while the Tories have lurched to the right. According to the study the electorate, meanwhile, has tended to move slightly to the left, which means that on many issues the average voter is now closely aligned with Labour.

On Europe, the picture is different. Labour is seen to have moved towards favouring closer ties with Europe, while both the Tories and the electorate themselves are seen as having moved in a sceptical direction. On average, voters are even more sceptical than the Tories, who are in turn seen as more sceptical than Labour.

But the surprising finding is that more voters say they are closer to Labour's position on Europe than to the Tories. This summer, the study found 41 per cent of voters thought they were closest to Labour, and 31 per cent closest to the Tories.

Further analysis of the same data by Geoff Evans, of Nuffield College, Oxford, suggests an explanation for this unexpected finding. Pro-European voters tend to think the Tories are anti-European, while anti-European voters tend to believe they are pro-European.

Views of where Labour stands on Europe, on the other hand, do not seem to depend on voters' own prejudices.

This reversal of the position at the last election, when voters tended to think John Major represented their views on Europe, appears to have been driven by the Tory split on the issue, which has left neither side satisfied.

On other key issues, voters not only assign themselves to a position on the spectrum close to Labour, but also overwhelmingly see themselves as closer to Labour than the Tories. On the other four issues examined, between 45 and 53 per cent of voters described themselves as "closest to Labour".

Mr Curtice said yesterday: "If elections are won by the policy positions of the parties, we can all go home now." Labour is seen as having moved away from support for higher taxes and public spending. Interviewees were asked in 1992 and again this year to give Labour a score, where zero meant higher taxes and higher spending on health and social services, and 10 meant lower taxes and lower spending. In the four years since the last election, Labour's average score rose from 2.8 to 3.4, the Tories' rose from 7.0 to 7.6, and the average score awarded by voters to themselves fell from 4.2 to 3.9.

On Europe, where zero meant "unite fully with the European Union" and 10 meant "protect the UK's independence from the EU", Labour moved from 5.2 to 4.7, while the Tories' average score moved from 5.6 to 5.9. The average for voters moved more sharply in a sceptical direction, from 6.0 to 6.9.

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