by RAY FLEMING

WE don't hear much from the Grimsby Labour MP Austin Mitchell these days but I liked his comment last week that “I couldn't help feeling how much happier the party has been without any leader at all”. Perhaps behind that thought lies an explanation for the fact that in the past three months opinion polls have consistently shown Labour neck-and-neck with the Conservatives. What was Labour's support of around 37 per cent built on when the only front line warrior for the party has been the admirable but lonely deputy leader Harriet Harman?

Yesterday an ICM poll taken immediately after Ed Miliband's first speech as leader returned the same 37 per cent but also showed a fall in Conservative support to 35 per cent. No doubt David Cameron will want to move that upwards at the party conference next week but it is possible that it shows the public's apprehension about the cuts that George Osborne will be announcing three weeks from now -- a related poll showed that for the first time opinion that the projected cuts will be fair has fallen to 37 per cent while the view that they will go too far has risen to 43 per cent. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats remain anchored on about 18 per cent which has been their mark for the past twelve months. These polls are of academic interest only. The battle has not yet been joined but it's getting close now.

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