Poll Gives Britain's Battered Labour Party Hope

Last week British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on the ropes amid allegations that he bullied junior staff. Add to that his governing Labour Party was behind the opposition Conservatives in the opinion polls. But with national elections just weeks away, Labour seems to be staging a comeback.

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Last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on the ropes, or so it seemed. He was fighting ugly allegations that he bullied junior staff and his governing Labour Party was stuck behind the opposition Conservatives in opinion polls. But with national elections just months, possibly weeks away, Labour seems to be staging a comeback.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: Last month at the Labour Party convention, Gordon Brown seemed to be begging British voters for one last chance. He knew he wasn't perfect, he said, but just look at the other guys.

Mr. GORDON BROWN (Prime Minister, United Kingdom): Take a second look at us and take a long hard look at them. Take a second...

(Soundbite of applause)

BARKER: And that's just what British voters seem to have done. After months in the basement, the Labour Party's fortunes have begun to turn. Peter Kellner of the polling organization YouGov says even last week's bullying allegations failed to reverse that trend.

Mr. PETER KELLNER (President, YouGov): But what is clear is that the gap between the Conservatives and the Labour Party has narrowed noticeably over the last month. I think it's mainly to do with the economy - a combination of the recession bottoming out and the recovery beginning again - and growing doubts in the public as to whether it's wise to bring in a new government, a conservative government, at this precise moment.

BARKER: Michael Portillo served in the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and was secretary of Defense under Thatcher's successor, John Major. Portillo agrees that early signs of economic recovery have caught the Conservatives off guard.

Mr. MICHAEL PORTILLO (Former Secretary of Defense): Do they want to say they're going to be very tough on public expenditure? Do they want to play that down? And they've hopped from one foot to another.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Conservative Party): They don't hand general election victories and governments on a plate to people in this country, and quite right too.

BARKER: This was Conservative Party leader David Cameron at his party's convention last weekend, when one poll had the conservative lead over Labour down to a mere two points. Statistically speaking, a dead heat.

Mr. CAMERON: This election was always going to be a real fight for our party. A fight to make sure we serve the country we love and that's the fight we're going to have.

(Soundbite of applause)

BARKER: Not every taker of the public pulse sees the Conservatives - or Tories as they're often called - heading for defeat.

Mr. MATTHEW SHADDOCK(ph) (Ladbrokes Bookmakers): Well, we've predicted a Tory majority of 16 at the moment.

BARKER: That's Matthew Shaddock, political oddsmaker for Ladbrokes Bookmakers. He says British voters are still putting their money on a narrow Conservative victory.

Mr. SHADDOCK: It was 11 to 4 a week or so ago; it's now two to one. We've taken an awful lot of money on that.

BARKER: And the bookies may well out-predict the pollsters of this world, because British voters have a history of, well, lying to pollsters. None of the polls predicted the scale of Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

Mr. BROWN: Look at what we have achieved together since 1997.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BROWN: The winter fuel allowance, the shortest waiting times in history, crime down by a third.

BARKER: And none of the polls predicted the last Conservative victory back in 1992.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

Prime Minister BROWN: ...civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland...

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