MUCH coverage of election campaigns inevitably focuses on the fight for supremacy between Labour and the Conservatives - it can look as though the Liberal Democrats are being squeezed out, writes John Curtice.
But the tough rules on impartiality under which broadcasters operate mean the Liberal Democrats actually get far more coverage than at any other time. This coverage helps remind voters of Britain’s third party.
Not all of the publicity the Liberal Democrats received last week was favourable - front page pictures of Charles Kennedy’s newborn baby were followed 48 hours later by the soundbites of his forgetfulness about local income tax - but it still appears to have done the party more good than harm.
Its poll rating has edged up to 22 per cent, two points higher than it was a week ago. Hardly dramatic, but it was a trend on which nearly all the polls published yesterday agreed. Both ICM and YouGov put the party two points higher than they did a week ago, while Communicate had the party four points up on its last poll before Easter.
Meanwhile, ICM also reported the party’s support was up a point or two in key marginal seats.
The underlying numbers in the polls are also encouraging for the party. Its rating as the party with the best policies has improved over the past week on all of eight issues being tracked regularly by ICM.
Meanwhile, Mr Kennedy himself is relatively popular. Only one in eight say they actually dislike him, far fewer than the two in five who dislike Tony Blair or Michael Howard. Thirty-five per cent would be willing to buy a used car from him - perhaps because they think that his apparent difficulty in recalling figures might give them a good deal.
But while the polls agree the Liberal Democrats have made some modest progress, they seriously disagree with each other as to how the fight for supremacy between Labour and the Conservatives is progressing. At one extreme, an ICM poll published yesterday put Labour as much as ten points ahead. Not only was this the fourth consecutive increase in Labour’s lead to be recorded by ICM since the campaign began, but it was the largest lead to be recorded in any ICM poll for two years.
In contrast, YouGov put Labour’s lead at just one point. This was not only down a point on what it had reported a week ago, but also four points lower than what it had reported only last Friday. If YouGov is believed, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is fragile. While a one-point lead should still be enough for a comfortable majority given the bonus Labour derives from the electoral system, it is hardly enough for Labour to feel comfortable.
It certainly might have all been a lot easier for the party if Mr Blair had handed over the reigns to Mr Brown. Little more than half as many people dislike the Chancellor as dislike the Prime Minister.
John Curtice is professor of politics, Strathclyde University