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Labour and the Conservatives are neck and neck in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll. Both parties are on 32 per cent, with UKIP third and unchanged on 15 per cent. The Greens are fourth on 9 per cent, down two points from last week’s peak but still ahead of the Liberal Democrats, fifth with 6 per cent.

The SNP are down two points at 3 per cent. However, this figure hides the disproportionate influence the party could have in May, and illustrates why the national polls – though clearly showing a tight race in terms of overall vote share – are not the best guide to the result in terms of seats. My constituency polling in Scotland, which will be released next week, will help to clarify this picture.

I have often noted that with the economy at the centre of the Conservative campaign, people’s personal circumstances and expectations will matter as much as the country’s overall direction. This week I returned to a question I asked last July to find out which particular aspects of the economy people found most worrying.

Prices were still at the top of the list, but with fewer people (36 per cent) naming this as one of their top three concerns than was the case in the summer. “Trouble finding a job” had fallen from second to fifth place on the list of concerns, leaving “the level of the country’s debts” (34 per cent) and “low interest rates for savings” (33 per cent) second and third in the current list. Women were slightly more likely than men to mention trouble finding a job (27 per cent to 21 per cent), and “job insecurity” (31 per cent to 26 per cent).

The question revealed the different priorities among supporters of different parties. Conservative voters, low interest rates for savings was the biggest concern, mentioned by 46 per cent, with the level of the country’s debts second. For Labour voters, rising prices remained by far the biggest concern, followed by job insecurity (34 per cent) and trouble finding a job (30 per cent). Lib Dem voters’ priorities were similar to the profile of the country as a whole, but for UKIP voters, low interest rates for savings again topped the list (32 per cent), fractionally ahead of rising prices (31 per cent). UKIP voters were also less likely to be worried about the level of the country’s debts (29 per cent) than voters as a whole (34 per cent).

My latest round of focus groups, conducted last week in Brighton and Solihull, confirmed that undecided voters had detected the first signs of easing on the cost of living. However, this could not be credited to the government: “it’s not that the economy is better, it’s that we’re not paying out as much for food and petrol” – they had “Aldi versus Lidl” and “the Arabs flooding the world with oil” to thank.

In general there was more optimism than pessimism about prospects for the economy, but most did not yet think the recovery had got as far as them: “They tell us it’s better, but how many have had a pay rise in the last three or four years?”

Nor did people expect any dramatic improvement – continued austerity, probably under any government, would mean things continuing on the same path for the next few years. Some wondered how long they would have to wait to feel the benefits. As one lady said when told the Tories talked about their Long Term Economic Plan, “yes, but how long?”

Only a few recalled Labour’s proposed energy price freeze, but with that policy obsolete, little else from the party had broken through. Some observed that they had been “banging on about the NHS”, but to what end they were not sure. Most saw it as a stick with which Labour intended to beat the Tories; nobody had heard of any Labour plan to improve the service, other than possibly to spend more: “They’re saying what’s wrong with it, not what they’re going to do to put it right”; “they care about it deep down and they would try to do more, but they’re a bit stupid with the money”.

There was a widespread view that problems with the NHS were deep seated, did not originate with the current government and would not be solved by the next one: “the problems are on the ground. It’s not really something that can be solved in parliament. It will take years”.

The only other message that had so far got through from Labour was the proposed mansion tax, which received a decidedly mixed response, usually because it would unfairly punish people of modest means who had lived all their lives in the same home: “there are people like my wife’s grandmother, who has lived in the same house in Surrey since 1922. She’s not a rich woman”. As dangerous for Labour politically was a suspicion that the policy was motivated mainly by envy and dislike of success: “it rallies people who are irritated that ‘everyone else is doing better than me’”; “when they talk about taxing the rich they’re scapegoating. In the same way UKIP say ‘it’s the foreigners’, Labour say ‘it’s rich people’.”

Little had got through from the Conservatives either, other than a general message about staying on the path of austerity and restoring stability. None could recall any of the Tories’ six election themes, though a few had heard that the NHS was not among them.

Those who had voted Liberal Democrat in 2010 other than as a left-wing alternative to Labour were notably open to Nick Clegg’s pitch that neither Labour nor the Conservatives could be trusted to govern alone. The Lib Dems had acted as the Tories’ “conscience” and tempered their excesses: “when you think of what austerity could have been like without the Lib Dems…” With the Conservatives still in need of toning down and Labour failing to inspire confidence, this remained a good argument for sticking with the Lib Dems – particularly since UKIP would hardly be a moderating influence (“they said they wanted to ban breast feeding in public!”)

In Brighton, most of those who had voted for Caroline Lucas in 2010 thought highly of her and were inclined to support her again. This was despite their almost unanimous disdain for the Green-run local council, which they said had allowed rubbish to pile up in the streets and brought traffic to a state of semi-permanent gridlock. Others, who were unlikely to have considered the Greens in the first place, marvelled at what they had heard of the party’s policies (“they want to legalise membership of Al Qaeda and give everyone £70 a week!”).

It is not surprising that most participants had heard little from the parties given that the only political story that had made any impression on them was about process. The TV debate saga was always the first thing to be mentioned spontaneously, and the proposed 7-7-2 format was announced hours before our Solihull groups. As I noted last week, whether the debates go ahead or not is unlikely to shift many votes itself, but our group were keen to watch them if they happened and liked the idea of a wider field: “people want to hear what the newbies have to say”. The problem was that with such a wide field, “it will either go on forever or we won’t get to hear much from each of them if there are seven answers to each question”.

Finally, to reveal more of the psychology of voters’ underlying perceptions, the crucial question of the week: if each party leader were a car, what car would they be?

There was a surprising consensus in both venues about Nick Clegg: he would be a Smart car, unless he was a people carrier to cart round all the baggage. Ed Miliband was more difficult: “A Ford Focus; average. Actually no, a Ford Focus is reliable.” David Cameron would be “something smooth”, possibly a Mercedes or a Range Rover, “depending on the image he wanted that day”. On Nigel Farage the groups were divided: a Ford Capri (“tinted windows, pimped”), with a “shiny exterior but then you look under the bonnet”; “a four-by-four with illegal bull bars on the front. Or a tank.”

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11 comments for: Lord Ashcroft: Labour and the Conservatives are neck and neck in my latest poll

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