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MILIBAND Red Ed

YouGov in the Sunday Times (£):

Conservatives: 32

Labour: 36

Liberal Democrats: 8

UKIP: 13

Greens: 6

Opinium in the Observer:

Conservatives: 34

Labour: 33

Liberal Democrats: 8

UKIP: 13

Greens: 7

Of the ten previous polls, three showed a Labour lead, two a Conservative lead, and the other five a draw.

The highest score for the Tories was 36 per cent; the highest rating for Labour was 35 per cent. The lowest finding for each party respectively was 32 per cent and 33 per cent.

It’s worth laying these figures out in full before considering the first poll in that series – today’s Sunday Times YouGov poll, which gives Labour a four point lead.  This is the one that the Westminster Village will zoom in on.  Indeed, it has already begun to do so: the Observer has knocked its own Opinium survey, which inconveniently finds the Conservatives marginally ahead, in order to big up the finding of its rival.

It has two other reasons for acting in this way.  The first is that YouGov is seen in the Village as the Gold Standard Pollster, and the second is that – more importantly – the fieldwork for the YouGov survey was carried out after Thursday’s Battle for Number 10 extravaganza.  It may therefore show that voters’ conclusion is that Ed Miliband won the encounter (although snap polls taken after the event did not) and that, by extension, the more they see of Miliband the better Labour is likely to fare.

But the indispensable Anthony Wells of YouGov warns that although this reading may be right, “it could just be normal random variation, only time (and subsequent polling) will tell”.  What is certain is that neither of the main parties has decisively broken through in the polls.  All other things being equal, the average of these recent findings will, if the election replicates them in a few weeks’ time, turn David Cameron out of Downing Street and put Ed Miliband in.

The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives will overtake Labour in poll share before polling day – probably winning the popular vote, and perhaps gaining more seats than their main opponents (which is not to say that they will form or lead the next Government).  This is why it was worth asking earlier this month, after three successive Tory YouGov leads: “Is this the moment when the polls turned for Cameron – and put him on course to beat Miliband?”

The answer is now very clear: No.  I’ve long said that the Party won’t win a majority – putting my head on the executioner’s block for failed forecasters two years ago – but will overhaul Labour in the polls sooner or later.  The Downing Street Approved line is that this overtaking will be a 1992-scale one, in which a panicked electorate, terrified by the prospect of Miliband and Ed Balls in power, will flock to David Cameron as voters did to John Major – delivering a Conservative majority.

But this breakthrough didn’t come in the New Year.  It didn’t come after the Budget.  And it hasn’t come after the first major election exposure of Miliband on TV.  The forecasts of senior Tories are acquiring a mystical strain.  One told me recently that he believes the big swing won’t come until election day itself, thus slipping under the radar of the pollsters altogether. Perhaps I’m wrong, and this will happen.  However, it hasn’t yet – and, as we have seen, the Conservatives aren’t in the lead at all.

What’s certain is that if the poll stalemate continues, those Number 10 forecasters will begin to sound more and more like Harold Camping, the American evangelist – who, as readers may remember, predicted that the Rapture would occur on September 6, 1994. When it didn’t come, he revised the date to September 29 and then to October 2 (emerging later to identify March 31 1995, May 21 2011 and October 21 2011).

In such circumstances, the media will not be as patient as some of Camping’s followers – and nor, perhaps, will some of the more enthusiastic supporters of the various leadership contenders. Reports of their activities may duly begin to filter into the prints and blogs, which won’t do anything to stabilise the campaign.  Tory MPs could publicly be drawn into the coverage. Already, Liam Fox is saying that “successful political parties don’t pick personalities and hope the agenda follows”.

Which charismatic, blond-haired, Churchillian biographer might he have in mind?  And, more importantly, what is Downing Street’s most likely means of ensuring that none of this happens? In broad terms, it is to stick to the plan – with one big exception, which we’ll turn to soon.  The Ozbyisation of the Conservatives won’t deliver the Party a sustainable majority.  But it is their most likely shot now of getting back as the single largest party, and forming a minority or coalition government.

Peter Kellner’s analysis of today’s YouGov poll shows Cameron ahead of Miliband as a leader and as best Prime Minister.  Kellner writes that the Prime Minister must try to transform the contest from one which is all about “empathy with normal voters, which he is likely to lose, into a debate about competence, which he might win”.  Until or unless this happens, Miliband is likely to remain, literally, in pole – or is that poll? – position.

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Footnote (as before): national vote shares don’t translate well into national results when parts of the United Kingdom are voting very differently to other parts – or if results in marginal seats are out of line with those in the rest of the country.  On the first point, the SNP surge in Scotland is clearly hitting Miliband very hard.  On the second, it would be odd if results in the marginals as a whole diverged greatly from those elsewhere.  The evidence of the Ashcroft polling to date is that they’re not doing so.

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