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With under three weeks to go to election day, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are starting to resemble two prize fighters locked together in exhaustion. They have thrown their punches without landing a knockout blow.
After weeks of electoral combat, neither the Conservative nor Labour leader has managed to inflict serious damage on his opponent. Polling averages have each of the two big parties on about 34 per cent support.
This was supposedly a crucial week in the campaign, as the parties published their manifestos, unleashing policies timed to arrive just as some voters received their postal voting forms for the May 7 election.
The opinion polls, however, have barely moved for weeks, and some pollsters believe that they will not shift before electors pick up their pencils to vote.
“The general election has felt like a campaign in search of an inflection point — a game-changing moment that will somehow break the deadlock that the published polls continue to show,” said Rick Nye, managing director of Populus.
“If the outcome of this election boils down to a battle between the head and the heart — with voters who prefer Labour’s values and motives but who believe the Conservatives offer a more credible leadership and economic management — the polls, if they break at all, are unlikely to do so until the point of decision, which for most people will still be polling day.”
The British election is likely to turn on the smallest margins — hence the significance attached by the parties to this week’s manifesto launches.
Pollsters say people often misunderstand the role of policies in politics. “Policies, much as they should matter, don’t move voters,” said Anthony Wells of YouGov.
He argues that voters form an opinion about a political party and its values and motives over many years and says policies have only a “second-order effect” in shaping perceptions.
In other words, Labour may have left it too late to convince sceptical voters that it is the party of fiscal rectitude — the central theme of Mr Miliband’s manifesto launch — just as Mr Cameron may struggle at this stage to convince people that the Tories are now “the party of working people”.
YouGov found people generally supported Labour’s policy ideas. Some 76 per cent thought cutting the deficit every year was a good idea; 71 per cent liked raising the minimum wage to £8; 61 per cent liked the so-called mansion tax; and 59 per cent supported a new 50p top rate of income tax for high earners.
But Mr Wells said popular policies in themselves did not shift polls. “It doesn’t necessarily change people’s perception of Labour.” People already thought the party would help working people and hammer the rich.
As for the Conservatives, 80 per cent liked the party’s plan to raise the income tax threshold to £12,500; 65 per cent wanted a lower benefit cap; 54 per cent backed a big expansion of free childcare; and 51 per cent supported an increase in the inheritance tax threshold to £1m.
Mr Wells argued that, while these policies were unlikely to shift national polls, individual policies — for example, offering housing association tenants a 35 per cent discount in buying their home, or better childcare — could move some key voters.
But all the parties are running out of “game-changers”. Most of the television debates have come and gone and most of the policy positions have been set out. This is where the “ground war” and small gains will become important.
Mr Miliband’s prospects continue to be undermined by the dramatic political surge enjoyed by the Scottish National party, which threatens to sweep away many of Labour’s 41 seats north of the border.
|The Labour manifesto||The Conservative manifesto|
|Reduce the deficit every year and balance the budget as soon as possible |
76% good idea
11% wrong priority
|Increase personal tax allowance to £12,500 and lift minimum wage out of income tax |
80% good idea
10% wrong priority
|Freeze gas and electricity prices until 2017 |
65% good idea
26% wrong priority
|Hold referendum on Britain’s membership of EU|
49% good idea
36% wrong priority
|New tax on houses worth more than £2m to pay for extra NHS staff |
61% good idea
27% wrong priority
|Take family homes out of inheritance tax by increasing effective threshold to £1m|
51% good idea
34% wrong priority
|Bring back 50p tax rate for salaries above £150,000 and 10p rate for lowest earners|
59% good idea
27% wrong priority
|Give housing association tenants the right to buy their home at a discount|
28% good idea
57% wrong priority