Voters back Labour's economic policies -- but don't trust Labour

Poll shows that public supports measures championed by Ed Balls, but still has more faith in Tory ec

If we didn't know it already, it has been confirmed again: George Osborne's decision to scrap the top rate of tax in tomorrow's Budget is going to be a very, very hard sell.

Today's Guardian/ICM poll reinforces the picture shown by every other poll on the subject -- voters back the 50p tax. It found that 67 per cent of voters want to retain the top rate, which applies to people earning over £150,000 a year. Particularly noteworthy is the strong support the 50p rate found among Conservative voters, with 65 per cent backing it. This is significantly more than the 45 per cent of Tory voters who expressed support for the top tax rate in Sunday's YouGov poll.

The line from the Treasury has been that despite the scrapping of the 50p tax rate (if it goes ahead), the Budget will make the rich pay. And ministers will be hoping the public believe them, because the overwhelming message from this poll is that voters want to hammer the rich. A total of 62 per cent said they would like to see new property taxes, such as the mansion tax on properties worth more than £1m. The policy, touted by Liberal Democrats, is not expected to be included in tomorrow's Budget.

The poll presents a mixed picture for Labour. The party can take heart from the fact that on the detail of policy, the public is behind them. Just 19 per cent of voters supported the Liberal Democrats' top priority of raising the personal allowance, compared with 23 per cent who support cuts to fuel duty and 30 per cent who back a VAT reduction, both policies championed by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Retaining the top rate of tax is another Labour policy with strong public support.

Even the broader aim of austerity is losing public support. Just nine per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that Osborne should "keep any extra money in order to pay off the deficit", while 19 per cent said that the single best thing he could do would be to relax his plans for spending and benefit cuts.

Yet this does not translate into support for Labour. The Tories regained a lead, with a top-line figure of 39 per cent (up three points), compared with Labour on 36 (down one) -- although it is worth noting that this is within the margin of error. Not only that, but despite Labour policies being in line with public opinion, the government retains a strong lead on economic competence. The poll found that 42 per cent trust Osborne and David Cameron, compared with just 25 per cent who prefer Balls and Ed Miliband -- a 17 point gap.

The Budget presents a serious political challenge for Osborne. It remains to be seen how much it will take for the public to turn away from the coalition.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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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