Iain Dale is claiming that he’s heard on the grapevine that an ICM poll tomorrow shows a 3 point Conservative lead, the first since Brown became leader. No confirmation yet; no idea if it’s true. UPDATE – not true after all, seems those were interim figures and the final ones show a small Labour lead.

He also says that the YouGov poll for Channel 4 will show Labour’s lead down to 3 points. I’m not in the office today, so can’t confirm if that’s true or not (and indeed, wouldn’t confirm it anyway if I did know!), so once again, no idea if it’s true. Iain says Channel 4 have confirmed it is a slim Labour lead.

UPDATE 2: There may also be a snap Populus poll in the Times. Ben Brogan has heard the YouGov poll shows a Labour lead of 4 points. All shall be revealed at around 7 o’clock. Well, the YouGov poll will. We’ll have to wait longer for ICM and Populus.

UPDATE 3: Rolling in now! The full Channel 4 results will be available here come the stroke of 7 o’clock. According to Channel 4 “the result is pretty sensational.”

At the weekend MORI had a poll in the Observer that showed voting intentions of CON 34%, LAB 41%, LDEM 16%. They also published the findings from their regular monthly monitor showing thing like the most important issues facing the country (currently topped by immigration and crime, which has fallen from the previous month when Rhys Jones’s murder was in the news).

However, as I’ve mentioned before, the turnaround rate for face-to-face polling tends to be a bit slower than phone or internet polling, so the figures were almost a week old by the time the Observer came to public and hence the voting intention figures that came out were actually more up to date ones from a separate phone poll. So as not to confuse matters with two sets of voting intention data, the Observer held back the older voting intention data from MORI’s monthly monitor until now, and it now appears on their website here.

The monthly monitor was conducted between September 20th and September 26th, so most of the fieldwork occured at the same time as the Labour conference, with Gordon Brown’s speech bang in the middle of it. Boy did it have an effect – topline voting intentions were CON 31%, LAB 44%, LDEM 15%, Labour’s best performance since 2003.

Since we now have more recent figures from Ipsos MORI that show a much smaller lead we can be relatively confident that they was just a blip, or outlying figures at the top of the margin of error, but all the same it was an astonishing lead. Just think about how the first day of the Conservative conference might have been different if it was those figures that had been on the newspaper front pages as delegates travelled to Blackpool rather than the more managable 7 point lead the Observer did report. A lot of the time the polls are more important for the effect they have on the political weather rather than their predictive quality (after all, there isn’t an election tomorrow), David Cameron is probably lucky he avoided the squall from these figures popping up on the frontpage.


Inheritance tax

The Conservatives big announcement at the start of their conference was a pledge to cut inheritance tax. A lot of the discussion over this has been about how few (or how many) people will actually benefit from it. That’s a discussion for somewhere else – here on UK Polling Report we don’t care whether something is intrinsically a good or bad idea, we only care what the public think about it and how it’s likely to affect public opinion.

Polls consistently show that inheritance tax is surprisingly unpopular even when compared to other taxes – I’ve posted before about it and it never fails to surprise me. Firstly it is seen as unfair. A Populus poll for the BBC back in 2006 found only 25% of people thought “having an inheritance tax on the value of the assets people leave when they die” was fair. A MORI poll in 2004 fund 69% of people thought it was unfair to tax property after death.

So what, you may say, most people don’t like taxes anyway, what matters is whether it is seen as more unfair than other taxes. A YouGov poll for the Taxpayers Alliance earlier this year asked people to say whether they thought particular taxes were fair or unfair on a scale of 1 to 5 – 1 being very fair, 5 being very unfair.

Inheritance tax came out very near the top – 65% of people thought inheritance tax was unfair, just behind council tax on 67% and ahead of the BBC licence fee on 63%. Compare this to Air passenger duty 45%, income tax 41%, national insurance 34% and taxes on cigarettes and beer 29%. In other words, no one likes taxes, but people think it is fair to tax people based on their income, and based on doing things that are bad for them or the environment. They don’t think taxes like the inheritance tax or council tax are fair.

Does that mean people would like to see it go? In Populus’s 2006 poll they asked if people would prefer inheritance tax to be replaced by an extra penny on income tax, 59% of people said yes. 76% said if there must be inheritance tax, it should affect only the very rich. A YouGov poll last November asked people what they would about various suggested tax cuts – 70% approved of the abolition of inheritance tax.

Once again, it’s easy to tell a pollster you want to see a tax repealed or cut – would they prefer to see inheritance tax cut rather than other taxes? An ICM poll for the Taxpayers Alliance last summer asked people to rate different taxes on how much they’d like to see them cut – again, unsurprisingly people wanted them all cut, butthe interesting bit is how they compare to each other. The tax people wanted to see cut most strongly was council tax (also the one they see as most unfair). It was followed by inheritance tax – a cut in inheritance tax being more popular than an basic rate income tax cut or an increase in personal allowances.

It’s strange that a tax that affects so few people each year seems to be so resented. I suspect it is unpopular not because people actually pay it, but because they imagine they might have to pay it one day. People hope they might receive a great big inheritance one day or, less morbidly, that they’ll be in a position to leave their children financially secure when they leave, they look at house prices now, think how high house prices might actually be when the day finally comes when the lawyers are looking at the value of their estate (or their parents’ estate), and they don’t like the thought of giving lots of it to the government.

So – that’s answered the first part. An increase in the threshhold of inheritance tax is likely to be popular. On the second part of the question – will it change public opinion? – I should add the caveat that just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it is an important issue for people. Inheritance tax is unpopular yes, but is it the sort of issue that really decides elections? Nope.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been concentrating perhaps more than usual on the headline voting intentions figure. Mostly that’s because the big issue has become whether Labour’s lead is solid enough to tempt Gordon Brown into an election, but I’m also becoming convinced that a lot of other questions, things like the best party on issues and leaders approval ratings, aren’t particularly independent of the main voting intention questions.

Looking at the details of the YouGov poll from the weekend David Cameron’s approval ratings are now way down, the proportion of people who think he has improved the Conservatives’ chance of winning the next election is also way down at 25% (not surprising given the polls) but I suspect these are largely symptoms of the Tory malaise, not causes.

What about the underlying perceptions of the Conservative party? Have they acquired new freshness and balance? 31% say yes, 46% say no. Looking at the cross breaks though there are a fair old proportion (31%) of – presumably cheesed off – Tory supporters who say he hasn’t, but there are also significant proportions of opposition supporters who say he has. 22% of Labour supporters think he has yet this clearly isn’t enough for them to switch to the Tories.

There is a similiar pattern when YouGov asked whether the Conservatives reflect the values of British people. Only 26% agree, 45% disagree, but a fair old chunk of those disagreeing are Conservative supporters while there is a significant proportion of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters who think the Tories do better reflect British values these days…yet still don’t support them.

Amongst the statements offered there are three possible explanations for Tory unpopularity that meet with overwhelming agreement amongst non-Conservative voters – firstly, that it’s hard to know if there is any substance behind what David Cameron says, secondly that Cameron seems like a lightweight compared to Brown, and thirdly that it’s hard to know what the Conservative party stands for these days.

Asked what the reasons might be for the Conservative lack of progress, something of the same picture emerges. 64% of people think that one of the reasons the Conservatives aren’t doing better is that it’s hard to know what they’d actually do. On policy questions the most popular risens given by non-Conservative supporters for why the Tories are doing badly is that they can’t yet trust the Conservatives on schools and hospitals and they don’t have credible policies (in contrast, most Conservative supporters think the problem is they aren’t attacking the government enough on waste).

I suspect that these are the problems that actually are facing the Conservatives at the moment – firstly, people prefer Gordon Brown to David Cameron. All the polls show he is seen as more of a heavyweight, looks stronger and he is certainly more trusted in a crisis and seen as a better Prime Minister. Secondly, the Conservatives don’t seem to have any policies and no one knows what they will do.

At this point in time there is not much the Conservatives can do about making David Cameron seem more heavyweight in comparison to Brown. One of them is a heavy-set man in his fifties of stern demeanour who has been at the top of government for a decade, the other is inexperienced, polished, young looking man who used to do the PR for Carlton TV. We know the strengths and weaknesses in the public perceptions of the two men, and no amount of spin is going to make Cameron look more heavyweight than Brown. For the moment the Conservatives need to do all they can to stop an election being seen as a Brown vs Cameron choice.

With the other problem the Conservatives can at least do something – if the problem is not having credible policies and not presenting a compelling picture of what a Conservative government would offer, the conference is their chance (possibly their last chance before an election) to do it – so far it looks as if they do indeed intend to use their conference to bring forward solid policy announcements and no doubt there will be polls next weekend to show if it has had any effect.

What needs to be remembered however is that there’s no silver bullet. Even if the Conservatives do come up with coherent policies that the public notice and remember – no easy task in itself – what really counts is how well Gordon Brown and Labour do, there is no course of action that the Conservatives can take that will automatically deliver victory or even a recovery. I remain a firm believer that governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them (though opposition are perfectly capable of losing them).