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Who is winning the economic argument?

Two polls today present a mixed picture.

New Statesman
George Osborne outside 11 Downing Street before presenting his Budget, March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

As crisis engulfs the eurozone, people across Europe are beginning to question whether austerity is, indeed, the only route out to recovery. But what impact is that having on the economic argument in the UK, and what does it mean for the political parties? Two polls out this morning present a rather mixed picture.

A Times/Populus poll (£) shows a thoroughly divided public. A small majority of 51 per cent believe that the government should slow the pace of spending cuts rather than trying to eliminate the structural deficit by 2017. Conversely, 49 per cent of voters back the coalition’s “Plan A”, and want the government to prioritise deficit elimination by 2017, even if that means more cuts. This result has been broadly consistent for 18 months, suggesting that the eurozone crisis and the implementation of cuts have not had much of an effect.

Elsewhere, a Guardian/ICM poll suggests that the eurozone crisis might actually be helping the government, as the public increasingly blames problems in Europe for the new recession in Britain. Asked about four possible culprits, 29 per cent continued to blame debts amassed by Labour, 24 per cent blamed the eurozone, 21 per cent the banks’ reluctance to lend, and just 17 per cent chose the coalition’s cuts. This shows a slight shift away from cuts and towards Europe since the same question was asked last autumn.

Two years into the new government, it is not good for Labour that the public continue to hold them responsible for the country’s economic woes. Both polls show very similar overall ratings, placing Labour on 41 points. Populus has the Tories seven points behind at 33, while ICM places them at 36.

There are several interesting things going on here. The first is that David Cameron’s personal ratings - consistenly higher than his party's - are falling. Last week, I asked whether “Lucky Dave’s” luck was running out, and that image is compounded. ICM gives the Prime Minister a net negative rating of -11, a significant fall since December (when he ranked at +5) and placing him neck and neck with the Labour leader Ed Miliband at -12.

The second area where the coalition has consistently outpolled Labour is on the economy. Although recent polls have suggested that Miliband’s team is closing the gap, today’s results suggest there is still a distance to go. Populus found that 40 per cent of the public backed Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg on the economy, compared with 33 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls.

ICM’s results mirrored this, finding that when people were asked to put their overall political preferences aside, 44 per cent preferred Osborne and Cameron on the economy, while 35 per cent trusted Miliband and Balls. While this is a substantial lead for the Tories, it’s worth noting that it has been diminishing steadily, from a 21 point gap in December to just nine now.

These polls show a public beginning to fall out of love with the coalition, but not yet confident of the alternative. Eurozone or no eurozone, there is a long way to go yet for Labour to win the economic argument.