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Why Labour Isn't Gaining From the 'Unfair' Budget

Posted: 26/03/2012 09:54

YouGov's lastest poll for the Sunday Times confirms the main messages from our immediate post-Budget poll for the Sun: that the Budget is seen as unfair, that most people disbelieve government assertions that the rich will end up paying more tax, that pensioners are being unfairly penalised - and that Tory support has slipped a little but without boosting Labour's rating.

To shed light on this, our Sunday Times poll explored attitudes to the two big themes of the economic contest among the three main parties: fairness and economic competence.

First, we asked people which party had the best ideas for making Britain fairer; then we asked which had the best ideas for making Britain's economy stronger. Here are the main results:

Which party has best ideas for....


  • Making Britain fairer - Conservative 21%, Labour 29%, Lib Dem 8%, Other 7%, None / Don't know 35%

  • Making economy stronger - Conservative 24%, Labour 3%, Lib Dem 5%, Other 36%, Don't know 31%


At one level, the results are unsurprising: Labour leads on fairness, and the Tories on economic efficiency. Even though the economy has been sluggish during the past two years, Labour is still paying the penalty of presiding over the 2007-9 recession.

However, it is striking that so many people don't take sides - more than one in three responded 'none of them' or 'don't know' to both questions. This suggests that there is much to play for. Neither Labour's lead on fairness nor the Tories' on economic competence is solid. Both are vulnerable.

However, the third question makes clear which is the more decisive battleground - and why George Osborne appears to be relatively unfazed by immediate reactions to last week's Budget. We asked:

If you had to choose, which do you think is the more urgent priority - making Britain fairer, or making Britain's economy stronger?


Here the answer is decisive: 60% opt for economic strength, just 32% for greater fairness. And only 8% don't take sides. When so few people say 'don't know' we can be pretty sure this is an issue on which people have strong feelings.

Even among Labour voters, more (50%) think a stronger economy matters more than fairness (chosen by 42%).

Before the critics point it out, let me acknowledge the point myself: this question forces people to take sides somewhat artificially. It can be argued that fairness and efficiency can go together. This, indeed, was the case that Labour made, with great success, in the mid-Nineties.

Nevertheless, I believe this question tells us something important about the public's priorities. In as far as they judge parties by their overall impact on our lives, economic competence comes first. A party can win elections even if it scores low makes for fairness; it cannot win if it scores low marks for competence. That was one of the lessons politicians learned in the Eighties and early Nineties - and the key to the Tories' surprise victory in 1992.

From around 1994 until 2007, Labour led the Tories on both counts, and won three elections in a row. David Cameron has striven mightily to show that the Tories can deliver both competence and fairness. He has succeeded partially on the first count, but not on the second. Last week's Budget may have killed any chance of the Tories persuading voters that, under current government policies, 'we are all in this together'.

However, that may not matter too much at the next election, if Cameron can build on the Tories' lead on economic competence. Ed Miliband's challenge, of course, is, in the first place, to stop the Tories establishing a bigger lead on competence, and slowly rebuild the reputation it enjoyed when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Gordon Brown chancellor.

And to those who find this analysis a little distasteful, who think that fairness matters most, both because of its intrinsic importance and because of the plight of families who suffer most when fairness takes a back seat, I reply: you have a point. However, the purpose of our surveys is to find out what people do say, not what we wished they said. Elections are won and lost for a variety of reasons; but I cannot recall any that have been won through wishful thinking.

This commentary also appears on the YouGov website

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