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The Conservatives retain the lead in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The Tories are unchanged since last week on 34 per cent, with Labour down a point at 30 per cent, UKIP up one at 15 per cent, the Greens up one at eight per cent, and the Liberal Democrats down two at five per cent, putting them level with the SNP, who are up one point. All the changes are within the margin of error.

As the parties debate the coalition’s record, I found only one fifth of voters saying they thought either they or the country would be any better off now had Labour been in government for the last five years. Indeed only half of Labour voters themselves thought this: four in ten said it would have made little or no difference either to the country as a whole or to themselves and their families. A majority of swing voters thought things would have been about the same if Labour had been in government, but they were twice as likely to think things would have been worse for the country (30 per cent) as to think they would have been better (14 per cent).

With speculation about the shape of potential future coalitions high on the agenda, I asked again how happy or unhappy people would be to see each of the smaller parties play a part in government after the election. (For simplicity my question asked about participation in a coalition, rather than explaining details of other potential deals like supply and confidence arrangements, but the results are a good indicator of how keen people would be to see the parties have a degree of power and influence).

As the prospect of a majority Conservative or Labour government recedes, so the idea of an administration supported by any of the other parties has come to look less attractive: the net “happy” score for each party has fallen since I last asked the question at the end of November.

The Greens still top the list as the only party which more say they would be happy to see in government (48 per cent) than say they would be unhappy (44 per cent). This support was not even, however: Labour voters said they would be happy to have the Greens in government by 59 per cent to 37 per cent; Conservatives said they would be unhappy by a forty-point margin.

A majority of Tory voters (54 per cent), would be happy to see the Liberal Democrats in coalition again, while Labour voters disagreed by 51 per cent to 46 per cent. Nearly four fifths (78 per cent) of UKIP supporters said they would not want the Lib Dems back in government.

As for UKIP themselves, a majority of all voters (57 per cent) said they would be unhappy to see the party in government – indeed Conservative voters (33 per cent) were less likely to say they would be happy to see UKIP in power than voters as a whole (36 per cent).

Voters were unhappy with the idea of the SNP playing a part in government by 61 per cent to 31 per cent. Conservatives were opposed by a 74-point margin (86 per cent to 12 per cent), and Labour voters were also more likely to be unhappy at the prospect (51 per cent) than happy (44 per cent).

 

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This week’s focus groups with undecided voters took place in Stevenage and Southampton Itchen, where the election is now firmly on the agenda: “It’s even on Loose Women. They had that Nigel Farage on today”. People in both venues had begun to receive literature, letters, phone calls and visits from canvassers, and most could name their local MP. Stephen McPartland was well-regarded (“he’s actually interested in Stevenage”), as was John Denham in Southampton, where people praised him for the work he had done locally but many did not realise he was standing down. Among those who did, a few could name Labour’s Rowenna Davis and the Tory Royston Smith. For most participants, though, the decision would rest more on national questions – “the broader spectrum” – than on local issues or candidates.

 

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The groups had noticed the latest frenzy over TV debates, but remained unmoved. In previous rounds people have said they would watch the debates if they happened, but those most apt to criticise David Cameron for his reluctance to take part were those already least inclined to vote for him. This week again we found nothing to suggest Cameron would be seriously damaged if the debates did not go ahead and he was blamed: “he should spend his time running the country rather than standing on stage”. Indeed since the leaders only seem to “act like children” when they get together, the event would probably not be very enlightening anyway.

 

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The fact that Labour and the Conservatives had both been “doing housing” had also entered our participants’ consciousness, though most were hazy on the details of either party’s plan (other than the pledge to build several hundred thousand by some future date) or the difference between the two. However, a few had noted features like the Conservatives’ proposed discount scheme for first-time buyers aged under forty, which they welcomed in principle, but even with schemes like this the idea of themselves or their children owning their own home seemed beyond reach: “People talk about affordable housing but what’s affordable about a £250k house when you’re on £20k? And how are you going to save a five per cent deposit when you’re in rented accommodation?”

 

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Immigration was raised in both venues, most forcefully in Southampton where many regarded it as the most important issue at stake given its effect on local public services (“the population has doubled!”) They also regarded the failure to reduce immigration as the biggest mark against the current government. However, opinion was not all one way. While one taxi driver said his income had been affected by an influx of fifty Romanian competitors, a transport manager said his firm had found it impossible to recruit an HGV driver and had had to look abroad: “Blaming immigration for the problems of the country is not a reasonable thing to do.”

Only UKIP were thought to have a clear position on immigration, giving the party an obvious attraction for those who were worried about the subject. Some felt they had bravely raised questions other parties had deliberately ignored: “two elections ago there was a consensus not to discuss immigration”. But there was concern at the idea of the party’s role ever going beyond this: “I like them being in the background and saying it’s important to remember these things, but I would be very frightened if they got in or were in control of anything.”

For those considering the party, would their decision be affected by the fact they lived in a marginal constituency? “A what, sorry?” Once they realised the result could be very close between Labour and the Conservatives, the Southampton women in particular felt more inclined to revert to their usual party – Labour.

 

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However, even those leaning towards Labour were far from sure the party had learned the right lessons from its previous time in government. For some, doubts about Ed Miliband as Prime Minister made the decision a real dilemma. “Cameron communicates at a number of levels, but with Miliband it’s all up here, talking in theories. You think, ‘that’s all very well but it doesn’t work like that’.” One problem was that “there probably isn’t one working class member of the Labour Party”, let alone any of the others. In fact “none of them has ever done anything proper. They go to university and become career politicians.”

 

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Well, then. What jobs would the leaders be best suited to outside politics? Mr Cameron would be a headmaster, or a company director “in charge of things”. Mr Farage would almost certainly be a pub landlord, and a good one at that, or would run his own small but successful business. The groups struggled to place Mr Clegg in the outside world: probably something administrative or perhaps a supermarket store manager. Mr Miliband’s ideal job – and this from people who did not know of his previous career – was to be a university professor. Make of that what you will.

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