Ed Miliband suffered a double setback last night as the Conservatives edged ahead of Labour in a poll for The Independent which also shows that only one in four voters regards him as a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting.
As the Labour leader prepared for his crucial speech to his party's conference in Liverpool today, the Tories enjoy a lead for the first time since October last year, just before Chancellor George Osborne outlined the Coalition's spending cuts, the research by ComRes shows.
The Conservatives are on 37 per cent (down one point); Labour on 36 per cent (down two); the Liberal Democrats 12 per cent (up one) and other parties 15 per cent (up two). Such a result would leave Labour 12 seats short of an overall majority at a general election. Some Labour MPs worry that the party should be further ahead as the Coalition's spending cuts bite.
One year after be became Labour leader, Mr Miliband's personal ratings also trouble some of his party's MPs. In the poll, 24 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that he is a credible Prime Minister-in-waiting, with 57 per cent disagreeing.
A third of people who intend to vote Labour do not view him as a credible premier, with only a narrow majority (54 per cent) saying they do. Only 13 per cent of Tory supporters and 24 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters agree.
Mr Miliband enjoys less support among men than women. Two in three men (65 per cent) do not see him as a credible potential Prime Minister, compared with 48 per cent of women. He also scores relatively poorly among the over-35s and the lowest DE social group, traditionally Labour's working class base.
According to ComRes, only 27 per cent of people agree that Ed Balls would make a better Chancellor than Mr Osborne, while 43 per cent disagree. Only half (50 per cent) of Labour supporters believe the shadow Chancellor would do a better job. Mr Balls also performs worse among men than women.
Another worry for Mr Miliband is that Labour's lack of credibility on the economy means voters may stick with "the devil they know" – the Tories – amid fears of a global crisis.
At the conference yesterday, Mr Balls issued his most fullsome apology yet for the errors made by the previous Labour Government. ComRes found that a so-called "mea culpa" strategy could appeal to some voters. Four in 10 people (40 per cent) say they would be more likely to support Labour if it said sorry for the mistakes it made in running the economy, but 52 per cent disagree.
Meanwhile, 48 per cent believe the trade unions enjoy too much influence over the Labour Party, but 37 per cent do not. More than a quarter (29 per cent) of Labour supporters agree, as do 74 per cent of Tory supporters and 47 per cent of those who say they will vote Lib Dem.
Although the Tories will be delighted to be ahead in the poll, it suggests they have a "gender gap" problem. Women are significantly more likely than men to vote Labour – 40 per cent of women say they will vote for Mr Miliband's party compared with 33 per cent of men.
Both Labour and the Lib Dems intend to exploit what they regard as David Cameron's weakness among women voters, after he was accused of making patronising remarks in Prime Minister's Questions, including telling the MP Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear". Downing Street, meanwhile, is drawing up plans to bolster the Government's appeal to women.
ComRes found that fewer than half (49 per cent) of people who voted Lib Dem in last year's election would back the party now, and only 54 per cent say they would be certain to vote at all.
Close allies of Mr Miliband insist they are not worried about Labour's ratings, saying the party has bounced back from a crushing election defeat last year without sinking into the in-fighting that had followed previous election losses. They believe voters will warm to the Labour leader when they know more about him – and hope today's speech will prove a crucial step on that road.
ComRes telephoned 1,000 British adults between September 23 and 25. Data were weighted by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables are available at www.comres.co.uk.
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