In Depth

Miliband, Balls score low on economy – but issue is fading

Irony is that the more the Tories boast about improving outlook, the more voters worry about other issues

Columnist Don Brind

Three interesting topics are raised by the latest opinion polls: the falling importance of the economy as an election issue, the Green surge and whether it means much, and the shrinking support for the three established parties.

The economy

Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls have slumped to their lowest rating for managing the economy in the latest ICM poll for The Guardian – even though the survey puts Labour three points ahead of the Tories on voting intentions.

Just 15 per cent say they trust Miliband and Balls compared to 37 per cent who have faith in David Cameron and George Osborne. The 22-point advantage is an ICM record on the economic question.

As The Guardian reports, the Tories hope “this will be decisive in May”. But will it?

The irony is that the more David Cameron and George Osborne boast that the economic outlook is improving (just today, new ONS figures show unemployment down again and wage growth "gathering pace"), so the issue – defined by ICM as “jobs, prices, wages” – is slipping down the agenda for voters.

It came third with 14 per cent naming it their top priority (down from 17 per cent last autumn) behind immigration (down one point to 19 per cent) and way behind the NHS (up seven points on 31 per cent) - Ed Miliband’s chosen battleground in this election.

As The Guardian puts it: “The declining political significance of the economy appears to be the flipside of easing financial anxieties.”

The Green surge

The ICM poll is the third in as many days to give a boost to the Greens. ICM has them up four points on nine per cent. A new YouGov poll for The Sun has them up three on ten per cent while Monday’s Ashcroft national poll also gave them a three-point hike, to 11 per cent.

There is no clear pattern to the shift of votes that has boosted the Greens. In the Ashcroft poll the apparent losers were the Tories, down five per cent. With ICM the losers are the Lib Dems and Ukip – both dropping three points. With YouGov, Labour are down two and Ukip down three.

The three polls provide more ammunition for Green leader Natalie Bennett in her quest for a podium in the televised leader debates. But she would be unwise to think these numbers will translate into extra seats next May. 

On the UK General Election website, Ian Jones shows how tough it will be for Greens - and indeed Ukip - to add to their tally of MPs.  

In the Greens’ top target seat, Bristol West, where they polled three per cent in 2010, they need a swing of 22.1 per cent to win - and this Lib Dem-held seat is also being targeted by Labour and the Tories. Jones notes that there are six Green councillors in Bristol – out of a total of 70.

The ‘big’ three

There are mixed messages in the new polls about the Tory-Labour battle and the strength of the Lib Dems. 

YouGov gives David Cameron his first lead over Labour since early December – by two points – allowing The Sun to report with relish that the Green surge “has pushed Labour to their lowest level of support since the last general election. On another day of misery for Ed Miliband, support for his ailing party slumped to just 30 per cent in a YouGov poll.” 

True, but ICM has Labour unchanged on 33 per cent, though a two-point boost for Tories has reduced Labour’s lead to three points. 

As for the Lib Dems, YouGov has them hanging in there on eight per cent, while ICM shows them dropping three points to 11 per cent.

But the real story is that the big three parties, Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems, have hit a record low in their combined share of the vote - under 75 per cent – while the smaller parties raise the stakes.  

“The combined forces of all those outside the old LibLabCon triopoly has never been stronger during three decades of Guardian/ICM polling,” Martin Boon of ICM tells The Guardian. 

But another comment from Boon is potentially misleading. He says: “The parties we used to relegate to the margins with the term ‘others’ are now moving centre stage.” Nothing in the figures suggests that the massed ranks of the House of Commons after 7 May won’t still be made up of Tory and Labour MPs. That is the reality of life under first-past-the-post.

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