John Curtice: The more we see party leaders, the less we like them

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This is proving to be a frustrating election for all of our politicians. None of them, it seems, can secure a decisive advantage. All of them still run the risk of achieving rather less than they hoped on 5 May.

This is proving to be a frustrating election for all of our politicians. None of them, it seems, can secure a decisive advantage. All of them still run the risk of achieving rather less than they hoped on 5 May.

Michael Howard probably has the most reason to be disappointed. His party's average poll rating remains stuck at 33 per cent, exactly where it was a week ago, and no better than the Conservatives' score at the last election. At the moment even the relatively modest target of bringing his party's tally of MPs past the 200 mark would seem to be out of reach.

But Charles Kennedy can hardly be much more cheerful. Far from profiting from the extra coverage the campaign has brought his party, its campaign bandwagon appears to have hit a boulder. At 21 per cent the Liberal Democrats' average rating has dropped a point.

Tony Blair might at least seem to have cause to be reasonably pleased. But while he has maintained his six-point poll lead, he seems unable to pull decisively away. Meanwhile, the internet polls still suggest the lead may be rather narrower, and Labour voters still seem more hesitant in their support. While an overall majority appears to beckon on 5 May it could well be secured with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Such an outcome would make Mr Blair's third government one of the least well supported in British electoral history.

There seems to be one crucial reason for this apparent inability of any of the parties to make an advance in this campaign. The more we have seen of our politicians and heard their arguments, the less attractive any of them has seemed.

Consider, for example, the party leaders. According to YouGov, the polling firm, we have become more convinced over the past week that all three of them "cannot be trusted to tell the truth" and are "weak".

In addition, fewer now think that either Mr Blair or Mr Howard "has sensible ideas for Britain's future" while fewer think that either Mr Howard or Mr Kennedy "cares about people like me". Even Labour's supposedly greatest electoral asset, Gordon Brown, has seen his ratings slide.

We seem less convinced too that any of the parties has the best policies. According to ICM, over the past fortnight there has been a decline in the number of people who think either the Conservatives or Labour have the best policies on health, education, immigration, Europe or the economy.

And while the Liberal Democrats' rating as the party with the best policies are somewhat better than they were at the beginning of the campaign, even they have been able to do no more than hold their own over the past week.

The cut and thrust of election campaigns provide an important test of the robustness of a party's policy proposals for the next four years. It is a test on which in this campaign none of the parties has been able to secure full marks. Labour has been unable to say what it would do about national insurance or the council tax, the Tories have been unable to say how many immigrants they would let in, and the Liberal Democrats have struggled to say who precisely would lose out under their proposals for a local income tax.

Doubtless the details of these arguments have passed most voters by. But perhaps they have noticed the hesitancy and prevarication they have provoked. It may well be that all of our politicians' hopes rest on their ability in the next 10 days to adopt a more confident and direct tone.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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