LONDON (Reuters) - The Labour Party, ousted from power in a May election, is level with the Conservatives for the first time in over two years as support for the Conservative-led coalition wanes, a poll showed on Thursday.
Three-quarters of those surveyed for the Reuters/Ipsos MORI monthly political monitor did not agree with the central plank of the coalition government's economic policy of swift public spending cuts to tackle the budget deficit.
Trade unions have threatened coordinated strikes and warned of possible widespread civil unrest if the government cuts jobs, benefits and services too aggressively.
In particular, the findings ill worry the Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner, whose ratings have slumped since the election and whose annual party conference begins on Saturday. Many of their supporters have switched allegiance to Labour.
The poll showed support for the Conservatives at 37 percent, down three percentage points from the last survey in July, and bringing them level with Labour for the first time since January 2008.
The Conservatives' rating is now little changed from the 36.5 percent they won in the election while Labour is up strongly from 29 percent. However, the LibDems were on 15 percent in the latest poll, down sharply from 23 percent in May.
Conservative-LibDem coalition argues that spending cuts must be made quickly to slash a record budget deficit and bolster market confidence. Labour says this risks derailing economic recovery and wants the pace of cuts slowed.
Most people -- three in five -- agree cuts are necessary, but three-quarters believe it would be better to cut more slowly to lessen the impact on public services and the economy.
"The government's message on the need for cuts is getting across to the public but as it comes closer fear is also increasing," said Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Public Affairs at Ipsos MORI.
"In a sense we are still in a 'phony war' as there has not been much of a direct impact on services and benefits the public receive or on public sector employment as yet. The real test of the government's popularity will be in the months ahead as the cuts begin to bite."
Economic confidence has also plummeted. The Economic Optimism Confidence Index fell to its lowest level since December 2009. Almost half of those surveyed thought economic conditions would worsen over the next year. Less than a third thought they would improve.
Nevertheless a majority (57 percent) agreed the government's policies would improve the state of the economy -- suggesting a possible lack of clarity among the public about the coalition's plans.
"Conditioning people to take the pain -- that's going to be the real challenge," said Vic Motune, a LibDem voter and charity fundraiser who took part in a focus group discussion for Ipsos MORI last week.
The monthly political monitor showed the move to Labour had come from young people, the poor and those outside the south of England -- all sectors expected to be hit hard by the spending cuts.
Data released on Wednesday showed the number of Britons claiming jobless benefit rose last month for the first time since January. Those in the 16-24 age group have been among those hardest since the beginning of the financial crisis, while regions such as the north of England are heavily dependent for employment on the public sector, which is facing job cuts.
Data from the monitor showed that for the first time since May's election, more people were dissatisfied than satisfied with the government. Some 43 percent said they were satisfied compared with 47 percent who were dissatisfied.
Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg were viewed more positively. Cameron's rating -- 57 percent were satisfied with the way he is doing his job -- is the highest he has ever received.
Unusually for a party leader, Clegg was more popular with Conservative supporters than supporters of his own party.
*Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 1,004 adults aged 18+ across Great Britain. Interviews were conducted by telephone September 10-12, 2010. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.
Additional reporting by Keith Weir; editing by Keith Weir and David Stamp