Brian Monteith: Labour is on course for No 10

BUT fear of him becoming PM may tempt Ukip voters back to Tories, writes Brian Monteith

People polled preferred David Cameron to Labour leader Ed Miliband Picture:Reuters

Labour is set to win the next British general election, despite the relative unpopularity of its leader, Ed Miliband. That is the obvious conclusion to take from Michael Ashcroft’s mega-poll of some 26,000 electors in April and early May conducted across the marginal constituencies that will help decide the result next year. Labour achieved 41 per cent, 12 points ahead of the Conservatives on 29 per cent, with Ukip coming third at 18 per cent and the Liberal Democrats bringing up the rear with only 8 per cent.

Ashcroft, the former Conservative Party treasurer who regularly conducts and publishes detailed political polling, pointed out that his findings were only a snapshot but promised to conduct further surveys and publish the results to track the trends. Earlier in the year, his polling indicated Ukip could cost the Conservatives enough seats to make it impossible for them to win a general election – and also pointed to a possible, albeit gradual, Conservative revival in Scotland.

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This time, the average 6.5 per cent swing to Labour could cost the Conservatives 83 MPs and put Labour in power with an overall majority if replicated across the country, but the variations between constituencies and poor approval rating of Miliband can still give Tories some hope of snatching an unlikely victory. I hope Ed Miliband enjoys rollercoasters, for he certainly experienced the highs and lows of politics in the past week as he lurched from one catastrophe to the next – and was then relieved to see some welcome gains in local authority elections.

Earlier in the month, Miliband had released a poster accusing the coalition government of putting the cost of groceries up because of the rise in VAT. It might have been a dangerous accusation but for the fact that the poster showed fruit and vegetables that are zero-rated and therefore not liable to any tax increase. The subsequent defence that VAT had increased transport costs was rather lame, given that the government has consistently abandoned Labour plans for increases in fuel duty.

Then last week, as the European and English council elections approached, Miliband became even more gaffe-prone. Firstly, he underlined the growing public mood that he is detached from everyday voters by failing to know the cost of a weekly shop for a family of four, suggesting £70-£80 when it is £112. His defence that he meant the price of fruit and vegetables only served to suggest he has no idea of the cost of groceries.

Then later the same day, in a radio interview while campaigning in the Labour target council of Swindon, he could not identify the name of the local Labour leader but suggested he was doing a good job running the council – when it is a Tory-run administration. A full brief had been provided by his aides but it was to no avail – he flunked it – and when the votes were counted, the Conservatives held on to Swindon.

Fortunately, the electoral gains in London, Labour’s best for some 60 years, helped save face, but the European elections are still expected to put the party behind Ukip – an embarrassing result for the main opposition party with only a year to go until the general election.

Whether it is the Labour message that is winning support or a more general dislike for the coalition government is responsible is hard to tell, but what is becoming clear is that Miliband remains Labour’s weakness. Indeed, Labour is beginning to have an Ed Miliband problem.

In Ashcroft’s poll, 29 per cent of voters said they were satisfied with the performance of David Cameron as prime minister, but an equally important 28 per cent said that while they were dissatisfied, they would still prefer Cameron to Miliband.

Crucially for the Tories, 85 per cent of Conservative defectors to Ukip would rather see Cameron than Miliband in 10 Downing Street, suggesting that by mounting a personality-based campaign, the Conservatives could help reverse the haemorrhaging of votes that is likely to cost the party key seats across the country. Such a campaign may even swing some doubtful Labour voters – for only 66 per cent of Labour voters preferred Miliband as prime minister. This poor showing for Miliband is not new. Only the other week I pointed to another poll by YouGov that showed Cameron had better approval ratings than Miliband – even in Scotland.

The continuing likelihood of a Labour victory in the general election is also a blow to Nationalists in Scotland as we count down to the independence referendum in September. The SNP-led Yes campaign continues to rely on the negativity of scaremongering about a future Tory government, even though this outcome continues to recede. If Ashcroft’s findings are replicated across the United Kingdom, Labour could still become the government, even without any Scottish constituencies taking part. Labour would win 298 MPs, an overall majority of two in a House of Commons without the current 59 Scottish seats, hardly the nightmare of Conservative rule Alex Salmond and his team like to suggest.

Evidence of Ukip eating into Labour support is developing, but it is primarily in areas where Labour is strong and unlikely to lose seats. What is far more likely is that Ukip will damage the Conservatives’ chances of gaining any Labour seats, while also costing the Tories many of their own marginals despite the Miliband effect. The spectre of rising Ukip support is therefore unhelpful to the SNP, not an advantage. The two factors that Conservatives must now rely upon are that voters become wary of risking the improving economy with a Labour government – and that the fear of Miliband becoming prime minister is enough to tempt Ukip defectors back to the Conservatives.

There remains one card that Miliband could yet play that would turn the screw on Cameron and that is to concede that there should be a straight “in or out” referendum on British membership of the European Union. Thus far, he has said he could not agree to that policy, but the temptation to undermine Cameron’s strategy of winning back Eurosceptics by making a Labour government acceptable to Ukip supporters may yet become irresistible. But would anyone believe Miliband if he flip-flopped? Surely it is the insincerity of establishment politicians that makes Nigel Farage attractive to disenchanted electors?

Ed Miliband has to be convincing as a leader, not feed the idea that he is an opportunist liability.