The bad news for Blair

Observations on the <em>New Statesman</em> Citigate DVL Smith Britometer poll

The Baghdad bounce that the Prime Minister hoped for has turned into a Baghdad sag. A poll carried out exclusively for the New Statesman reveals that more than one in three voters want Tony Blair to step down as Labour leader within the next 12 months and that 43 per cent have a lower opinion of him than they did a year ago, while only 13 per cent have a higher opinion.

However, the NS/Citigate DVL Smith poll shows little enthusiasm for a successor. Despite being shown a list of nine prominent Labour politicians, including Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and Clare Short, most respondents declined to choose any of them. Gordon Brown was by far the most popular single choice, but even he was chosen by fewer than a third. Of the others, only Cook and Short registered small amounts of support.

Only 12 per cent said that Blair should stay as Labour leader indefinitely; more than half of all voters, and more than a third of those who voted Labour at the last general election, wanted him to go within two years.

Is this the result of his support for America in the Iraq war? There are strong signs that it is. More than half of all voters "strongly" agree that "Tony Blair is too close to George Bush" and another 20 per cent "slightly" agree. On no other question in our survey - and we asked about immigration, poverty, tax, the NHS and education - was there such strength and unanimity of feeling across classes and age groups. Another pointer is that women, who were more opposed to the war than men according to most polls, were also far more hostile to the Prime Minister in our survey.

But another strand of anti-Blair feeling also emerges. Unskilled workers (social class E) were the most hostile to him: as many as 57 per cent wanted him out within a year and another 18 per cent wanted to see him go within two years. Reasons for this result may possibly be found in the answers to two other questions. First, a majority of respondents agreed that "the Labour government has not done enough to improve poor families' living standards". This view was shared by as many Tory as Labour voters, and by 60 per cent of the unskilled workers.

Second, despite Labour's emphasis on education as a mechanism for improving the fortunes of the deprived, only 27 per cent overall agreed that the government's policies "have increased life chances for poor children", while 44 per cent disagreed. But there is a twist to this result: the lower social classes (Ds and Es) were much more likely than the upper social classes (As and Bs) to agree with the statement, suggesting that the latter's views may be influenced by the government's policy on charging tuition fees to university students. Ministers argue that fees hit affluent families, not poor ones; but the affluent may, all the same, hide their self-interest behind claims that the less well-off are worst hit.

So has Blair's error been to behave too much like a Tory? Would Labour do better if it moved sharply to the left? Our poll provides little support for such views. Overall, 48 per cent "strongly" agree that "the Labour government is too soft on immigration" and another 15 per cent "slightly" agree; an overwhelming 74 per cent in the E social class slightly or strongly agree. Again, 57 per cent agree that Labour has been right not to raise income tax rates.

Faced with the straightforward statement that "the Labour government behaves too much like a Tory government", our respondents were divided: 38 per cent agreed, 37 per cent disagreed. Those who voted Labour in 2001 were far more likely to agree than Tory voters; but Liberal Democrat voters were most likely of all to agree (59 per cent).

Our poll has some encouragement for those worried about voter apathy. A third of the sample overall said that they were more interested in politics after the events of the past year (against 19 per cent less interested). Among those who did not vote in 2001, 48 per cent said they were more likely to vote next time (against 26 per cent less likely to vote).

But the poll is largely depressing for Tony Blair. Possibly the worst result of all for him is that fewer than one in five voters (and fewer than one in three who voted Labour at the last election) agree that his government "has improved the NHS". Our poll, when combined with others taken recently, suggests the government's popularity is declining; but neither a different leader nor different policies present a clear route to recovery.

Citigate DVL Smith carried out telephone interviews with 500 people between 29 May and 31 May