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Labour’s lead is up from one to four points in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The party’s 36 per cent share is the highest recorded in the ANP since July, while the UKIP share of 11 per cent is the lowest I have yet found in my national polling. The Conservatives are up two points on 32 per cent, the Liberal Democrats down two at 7 per cent, and the Greens and the SNP unchanged at 8 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.

Despite prompting for UKIP in the main voting intention question at the beginning of 2015, I have generally found lower scores for the party this year than last – indeed, UKIP’s share in published polls more generally has drifted down since its height last autumn.

My qualitative research suggests two possible reasons for this. Most importantly, undecided voters increasingly (and spontaneously) say they know where UKIP stand on immigration and Europe, but at a general election they want to vote for someone with more to offer. Some also wonder whether unpleasant or even sinister elements lurk behind the reasonable and entertaining Mr Farage, a suspicion that may have been reinforced over the last few days. We will see as further polls are published whether this effect persists in the coming days and weeks.

On the question of which party has the best approach to different policy issues, I found the Conservatives comfortably ahead on “cutting the deficit and the debt” (by 22 points), “steering the economy through difficult times” (by 15 points), “getting the economy growing and creating jobs” (by seven points) and “reforming the welfare system to cut benefit dependency” (by eleven points). Labour had a clear lead on “improving the NHS” (by 24 points), “improving standards in schools” (by eleven points) and “tackling the cost of living” (by eight points).

The two parties were very close on “dealing with crime”, “Britain’s relationship with the European Union” (both one-point Tory leads) and “introducing practical policies that would work in the long run” (on which the Conservatives were ahead by three points).

UKIP had the lead in one policy area, “dealing with immigration”. More than three in ten (31 per cent) said the party had the best approach here, with Labour and the Conservatives tied on 22 per cent.

It is notable that around one fifth of Labour voters thought the Conservatives had the best approach to economic growth, steering the economy through difficult times and reforming welfare, and 27 per cent favoured the Tories when it came to dealing with the deficit. Meanwhile, a quarter of Conservative voters thought Labour had the best approach to improving the NHS. More than three in ten Tories and more than one in five Labour voters thought UKIP had the best stance on immigration.

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This week’s focus groups with undecided voters were held in Halesowen and Taunton, where the parties’ local campaigns had begun to swing into action. Leaflets and direct mail had begun to arrive, not all of it very enlightening: “the Labour one said if you vote Tory the NHS will be privatised and the Tory one said if you vote Labour spending will be out of control”. There was also a lesson in proofreading: “I got a letter from the Lib Dems but there was a terrible typo in the main headline so I didn’t look at the rest of it.”

In Taunton, most participants knew Jeremy Browne was standing down (“he fell out with Nick Clegg. He was Under-Foreign Secretary or something and got the sack”). He was visible and well known locally, though there was some dispute as to whether this meant he was a good MP or merely “likes having his photo taken”. The Conservative challenger Rebecca Pow was also mentioned by name by several people in the groups – a rare feat for a candidate. Even so, most of those who had voted Lib Dem last time said they would probably do so again, either because they thought the party had done reasonably well in office on things like the tax threshold and free school meals, or because they were simply the local alternative to the Conservatives.

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In national news, people in all the groups had noticed the Conservative plan to require young claimants to do voluntary work in return for benefits. People largely approved of this plan, both because it would because it would be good for the young people concerned – “they need something instead of going into that rut where they are on benefits and have no idea what working is like” – and in terms of fairness to the taxpayer (“there’s a hotline where you can dob people in”, we were reminded with relish in Halesowen, where two participants had used this service to report neighbours they suspected of claiming more than their due).

People had also heard, and most supported in principle, the idea that people claiming benefits because of drug addiction or obesity should have to accept help for those problems. However, many thought there would be practical problems enforcing the policy and that it sounded rather a blunt instrument, particularly when it came to obesity. Some doubted the plan would ever be implemented: “They’re not going to take their benefits away though, are they? Then they would be on the streets, and that’s not going to happen.”

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The plan to expand apprenticeships had also been noticed, though not everyone was sure whose plan it was: “I can’t remember what party it is but someone has been promising apprenticeships for people with the right grades. I think it was the Lib Dems.” The idea was welcomed, but those who did know it had originated from Labour wondered how much it would cost and how it would be paid for – something our groups this year have done in respect of all the Labour proposals that have crossed their radar. A few wondered what was in it for them: “We are always hearing about helping the kids but what about people who have been working for twenty or thirty years? They just put your tax up.” The proposal to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020 generated little excitement: “By then it will only be worth what it is now”.

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For our groups, the ongoing rows about HSBC, tax avoidance and political donors had melded into a single shapeless story (“there was the guy with the Swiss bank account who hadn’t paid tax for 20 years but they didn’t prosecute. Wasn’t it the Boots man?”). They had not found any of it very edifying, but neither was it very surprising, and our participants did not think of it as a party political question, let alone a decisive election issue: “There are so many ways of dodging tax – invest in a film, buy a forest, it’s been going on for decades. You go to your accountant and say ‘I don’t want to pay any tax’ and he’ll come back and say ‘OK, invest in this and this.’ Did Labour really change it in the 13 years they were in government?”

The news that a survey had revealed 77 per cent of FTSE500 business leaders thought a Conservative government would be the best outcome for their business was also far from decisive: “they probably just think they would be better off under the Tories.”

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Views of the party leaders are now entrenched and are unlikely to change before polling day. As ever, the main question over David Cameron – usually raised by people more hostile to the Conservatives to start with – was whether he related to people from humbler origins than himself (the more open-minded saying “as long as he’s taking the right decisions for Britain, I’m not bothered about his background”); more often he was praised for standing up for the country, making difficult decisions or at least being “the best we’ve got”.

Ed Miliband was for some a barrier to taking Labour seriously, and was not a strong leader despite having a steely side, if not a very attractive one: “He has got balls because he stabbed his own brother in public. That was absolutely ruthless, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Nick Clegg’s attempts to make his voice heard in the coalition inspired more sympathy than admiration, and Nigel Farage was generally thought an invigorating person to have around even by those who would not consider voting UKIP (though some who regarded the party’s agenda as being too narrow treated him as a sideshow: “He’s a bit like your missus. He might have said something intelligent but you weren’t really paying attention.”)

But what, I feel you asking, if each of the leaders were a supermarket? For our groups, the answer to this important question was that Nigel Farage would be Aldi: “you know what you’re getting. Down to earth. Anyone can shop there.” Nick Clegg would be the Co-op, with “all its nice fair trade values” (if this sounds like a compliment, the tone of voice suggested it was not intended as one). David Cameron would inevitably be Waitrose, but “pretending to be Sainsbury’s”. Ed Miliband, by the same token, would “go to Waitrose but with his Lidl bag-for-life to carry round afterwards.”

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