A decade of one-party dominance appears to be drawing to a close. Having enjoyed almost unalloyed and uninterrupted double-digit leads over the Conservatives since 1992, Labour finally seems to be facing a real challenge to its position as Britain's most popular party.
The latest evidence comes from a YouGov poll this week that puts Labour just one point ahead of the Conservatives. Earlier this month Populus estimated the lead at two points. Similar results were produced between Christmas and the onset of the Iraqi war, during which period all the pollsters recorded record low leads. On one occasion, Populus put the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour.
So the apparent long-term decline in Labour's popularity was temporarily obscured by the Iraqi war. But it has rapidly reasserted itself. As a result, British politics is beginning again to look like a competition rather than a predictable one-horse race. Not that the Conservatives should be celebrating yet. For a start, not all the pollsters paint such a rosy picture. ICM, which has consistently been one of the more accurate pollsters in recent years, still puts the party 13 points behind in its poll this month.
Moreover, for an opposition to be neck and neck with the Government in the middle of a Parliament hardly counts as an astounding performance by historical standards. Even Labour regularly managed that in its disaster days of the 1980s.
Oppositions that go on to win the next election have usually been parties that have developed a substantial poll lead some time in the mid-term.
And even if the Conservatives are neck and neck with Labour in public affections, this does not necessarily mean they would be equal in the number of seats. As the parties' votes are distributed across the country at least, the electoral system gives Labour a substantial in-built advantage, which could mean that even a one-point lead would still give it a substantial majority.
Even so, Labour now looks mortal. Much of the public's confidence in Tony Blair's leadership has gone. The party is divided on several significant issues. But the scale of Labour's decline is still more impressive than the Conservatives' advance. The Tories need to present a viable alternative. That is the challenge facing Iain Duncan Smith.
John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University
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