WITH a general election expected next spring, all the political parties will be keeping a close watch on opinion polls. But if the last year is anything to go by, movements in the polls are likely to be short-lived.
Despite massive fluctuations in the fortunes of the political parties, Labour ends the year as it started it - riding high in the polls. Few would have predicted that in September when the the fuel crisis had put the Government on the rack and some polls showed the Tories ahead of Labour for the first time this Parliament.
Education will be a key battleground in the coming months. Although the number of people citing education as "the most important issue facing Britain today" has fallen, from a high of 43 per cent immediately after the last election to 29 per cent this month, it is still seen as second in importance only to the National Health Service.
Unfortunately for the other parties, last year's polls show that voters consistently back the Government on education. A Mori poll for the Mail on Sunday last month found that half of voters (49 per cent) say that Labour has the best policies compared with just one in five who back the Tories and one in 10 who support the Liberal Democrats. Fewer people back each opposition party on education than say they support them overall.
Despite the Tories' efforts to promote their free schools policy and the Liberal Democrat's promise to increase spending, Labour's lead on education has remained consistently above 15 per cent. There are a number of reasons for this.Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett remains one of the most popular members of the Cabinet. More than half of people say that they are satisfied with his work, compared with 33 per cent who are dissatisfied. With a plus 22-point rating Mr Blunkett must be the envy of the Prime Minister whose own popularity suffered this year.
Personal popularity has been reinforced by a sure touch on controversial issues. Even Gordon Brown's much criticised attack on university elitism was narrowly backed by the public. Only over the planned repeal of Section 28 (the law which bans the promotion of homosexuality by local councils) did ministers' sure touch waver. The everday experience of parents has also helped Labour. A TESFDS poll published in January showed that more than 90 percent of parents believe that their child is receiving an education which is at least "fairly good". Also more parents believed that standards have improved than think they have got worse since Labour came to power. But ministers cannot be complacent. The vast majority had not noticed any change since 1997.
While most of the public seem to be satisfied with Labour's progress on education, the same cannot be said with any certainty about teachers. A Guardian poll in February showed that half expect to quit the profession within the next ten years. Workload, stress and bureaucracy are the main gripes. If Labour cannot convince teachers that they too will benefit from the focus on education then the other parties could benefit.