Voters want Cameron to come clean on the 50p tax cut

Sixty two per cent of voters want the PM to say whether he will benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate, private polling by Labour shows.

On the eve of the Labour conference, the Conservatives sought to unsettle Ed Miliband by releasing private polling showing that most voters believed David Miliband would have made a better leader and that Miliband lacked the qualities required of a prime minister. Now, as the Tories head to Birmingham for their annual gathering, Labour has released its own mischevious poll.

After Miliband alleged in his conference speech that David Cameron would receive the "millionaire’s tax cut", a private poll for the party by ICM (sample size: 2,009) has shown that a majority of voters want Cameron to say whether he will benefit from the abolition of the 50p rate. Asked whether the Prime Minister should "come clean and tell people honestly whether he is personally benefitting from this" or whether it was "a matter only for him", 62% said the former and 22% the latter. Among Conservative voters, 46% wanted Cameron to "come clean", while 40% agreed it was a private matter.

Aware of how much damage the Tories inflicted on Ken Livingstone over his tax arrangements (and with an eye to how the Obama campaign forced Mitt Romney onto the defensive over his tax bill), Labour is out for revenge. Miliband used the final PMQs before the conference season to challenge Cameron on whether he would benefit from the 50p tax cut, describing it as "a question he would have to answer between now and April" (when the tax cut is formally introduced). Cameron has so far refused to give an answer (unlike George Osborne, who said he would not benefit from the move) and, under ever-greater pressure from Labour, the Tories will need to decide whether this strategy is sustainable.

The poll also reminds us just how unpopular the decision to abolish the top rate is. The survey, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday this week, found that 71% of voters think the coalition should abandon the tax cut. Asked whether, "with government borrowing coming in higher than expected", the government should "cancel plans to cut tax for people on £150,000 a year", 45% strongly agreed it should, while 25% somewhat agreed. Seven per cent strongly disagreed that it should and 10% somewhat disagreed. By 65% to 26%, Conservative voters also opposed the tax cut going ahead. 

Were this not a private poll, it's unlikely that the question would have appeared in that form ("with government borrowing coming in higher than expected" is designed to lead voters to the desired answer) but it's worth remembering that previous polls have shown widespread opposition to the abolition of the 50p rate. An ICM survey for the Guardian in March found that 67% of voters wanted to keep the top rate. More than any other single measure, it was the abolition of the 50p rate, juxtaposed with tax rises on pensioners, pasties, caravans, churches and charities, that retoxified the Tory brand.

Sixty two per cent of voters said Cameron should "tell people honestly whether he is personally benefitting from this". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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