Labour are five points ahead in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. Labour’s share is up two points since last week at 32%, with the Conservatives down two at 27%, the Liberal Democrats down two at 7%, UKIP up two at 18%, the Greens unchanged on 7% and the SNP up one point at 5%.
All these changes are well within the margin of error and are not significant in themselves. What matters is whether Labour will be able to sustain a lead over the coming weeks or if the recent narrower pattern continues. It is also notable that in the ANP the two largest parties have achieved a combined share of just 59% for five out of the last six weeks. The overall picture from the polls is that the national race remains very close and that the result will be determined in individual seats; my latest survey of battleground constituencies will be out later this week.
As I noted in my Guardian article today, Nigel Farage is in the unfamiliar position of being at the centre of a Westminster consensus by declaring that when it comes to the general election, “all bets are off, the whole thing’s up in the air”.
It seems the public agrees. This week I split my 1,000 sample into two, and asked half of them what they thought was the most likely outcome of the general election, regardless of what they would prefer to happen. Forty per cent thought the Conservatives would be in government, including 27% who thought they would win outright. Thirty-nine per cent thought Labour would be in government, including 26% who thought they would be governing alone. The 26% who thought the Lib Dems would be in office again were precisely divided over whether this would be with Labour or the Tories. More than one fifth (21%) of voters said they did not know what would happen.
Seventy per cent of both Labour and Conservative voters thought their own party would be in government either alone or in coalition. However, while Tories were more likely to say they did not know what would happen, nearly a quarter (23%) of Labour supporters thought the Conservatives would be returned to office, including 16% who thought they would get an overall majority. While UKIP voters were as likely as the electorate as a whole to admit they didn’t know what to expect, two thirds of those expressing a view thought the Conservatives would be back in government; most of these said they thought the Tories would win outright.
For the other half of the sample I put the question in a slightly different way: irrespective of what they wanted to happen, did they think David Cameron or Ed Miliband was the most likely to be Prime Minister after the election? On this question the nation was less equivocal. Only 23% of all voters said they expected Miliband to enter Number Ten next May. More than half (59%) of all voters, including nearly nine in ten Tories (88%), a majority of UKIP voters (55%) and two thirds of swing voters (68%) expect Cameron to remain in charge. Even Labour voters are divided over whether the PM will be Cameron (43%) or Miliband (44%).
In other words, though all outcomes seem possible, most voters just do not think Mr Miliband will reach Downing Street. That in itself could be an indicator of whether they will ultimately be prepared to put him there.