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.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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