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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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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