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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.