LONDON -- Life is tough for Britain's political pollsters.

Five years ago, they trumpeted a Labor victory only to find the Conservatives pulling away for a fourth-straight election triumph.

Now, the pollsters are again on the hot seat after election surveys with wildly different numbers were published yesterday.

The ICM poll for the Guardian of London showed Labor's lead shrinking to 5 points over the Conservatives, 42 percent to 37 percent, with 14 percent for the Liberal Democrats. Only a week earlier, ICM showed Labor with a 14-point advantage.

But three other media polls showed Labor's lead as still substantial, at 19 to 21 points.

The electorate is volatile in the days before the May 1 general election. The Conservatives have been energized by the issue of Britain's role in Europe. Prime Minister John Major has been telling voters that he is the more effective negotiator with Britain's European Union partners.

The Labor Party and its leader, Tony Blair, have run a lackluster, play-it-safe campaign in a bid to end 18 years of Tory rule.

The pollsters are trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of 1992, when five opinion polls published the morning of the election showed a Labor lead of 0.8 percent. In the end, the Conservatives won in 1992 by 7.5 percent.

After the polling debacle -- the worst in British history -- the Market Research Society investigated why the error occurred.

The pollsters' professional body concluded that the polls did not accurately pick up a late swing to the Conservatives. The pollsters ended up targeting too many Labor voters. Conservative voters were judged more shy than others in responding to canvassers.

"I have more cause to be nervous than anyone else," said Nick Sparrow, ICM's managing director. "The other polling companies agree with one another. And we don't. I'm a believer in the concept of a noble failure -- that faced with a disaster of 1992, I decided that polling methods needed to have a fundamental review.

"I think it's better to try something [and] to have failed than not have tried at all," Sparrow said.

Compared with the country's other major polls, ICM has consistently shown a narrow lead for Labor over the Conservatives. The reason? The company is giving added weight to the so-called shy Tory voter.

"In the past four years, we've had nothing but bad press for the Conservatives," Sparrow said. "In those circumstances, a spiral of silence may develop, which, if ignored, may well undo the polls."

The politicians are trying to take it all in stride.

"I've never commented on polls, whatever they may be," Major said. "By and large, they are of no real use in determining what people are going to do on Election Day.

"I'm much more concerned with what people are saying to us on the doorstep," he added. "I'm very happy with the way the campaign is going, and we are increasingly confident as we move toward May 1.

"I don't think anyone can predict with any certainty what the outcome of the election will be," Major concluded.

Labor's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said during a television interview: "We have certainly seen no evidence on the doorsteps of any slip in our lead."

Liberal-Democratic campaign chairman Lord Holme seemed a bit bemused by all the numbers. "Clearly, it's a strange day when two polls published are so clearly divergent from each other," he said.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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