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.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?