ALTHOUGH the latest Guardian/ICM poll, taken last weekend, puts Labour in a three point lead over the Conservatives that result will spread gloom rather than optimism in Labour election HQ.
To begin with, the six point lead the party enjoyed in the same poll in December has been halved; of greater importance than the percentage points, however, is that the decline was registered immediately following Tony Blair's high-profile helicopter tour of England launching a new pledge at every stop. Labour's Alan Milburn/Alastair Campbell strategy team will be asking itself why support has apparently diminished at a time when it should have increased or, at least, held firm. The wisdom of maintaining an active campaign for ten weeks or so, assuming a May 5 election date, may come into question even though it would now be difficult and perhaps counter-productive to put the campaign in neutral or reverse gear for a while. For their part the Conservatives have reason to be quietly satisfied with the result of the initiatives they launched just before the poll was taken, although they know that they need to be running at least neck-and-neck with Labour before they can even begin to think of significantly reducing Labour's majority in the House of Commons, let alone of actually winning themselves. The support for the Liberal Democrats has been unchanged at 21 per cent for three months, according to this ICM poll; Mr Kennedy will not be alarmed by this since the polls invariably underestimate Lib Dem strength at a general election and, in any case, this time their tactics are to focus strongly on constituencies where they have a good chance of winning rather than to spread their effort evenly everywhere throughout Britain.