Voters are turning their back, for the first time in more than a decade, on Labour's promise to spend more on public services because of the prolonged economic downturn, a poll for The Independent suggests today.
Those polled reject the higher taxes planned by Labour and support the lower spending promised by the Conservatives, the ComRes poll finds.
The survey suggests that David Cameron would win a huge majority if tax and spending became the key dividing line between the two main parties at the next general election. It highlights a crucial change in the public mood since the 2001 and 2005 elections, when voters preferred Labour's pledge to invest in public services rather than Tory tax cuts.
The poll also reveals the end of the "bounce" enjoyed by Gordon Brown during the early days of the financial crisis. The Tories are on 39 per cent (up two points on last month), Labour on 34 per cent (down two), the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent (down one point) and other parties 11 per cent (up one). If repeated at a general election, those figures would leave Labour as the largest party, but 30 seats short of an overall majority.
But asked how they would vote if the Tories committed themselves to a lower level of public spending than Labour and to try not to raise taxes – Mr Cameron's current policy – 49 per cent said Tory, 32 per cent Labour and 11 per cent the Liberal Democrats.
There was a similar result when people were asked how they would vote if Labour committed itself to higher public spending than the Tories and admitted it was likely to mean an increase in some personal taxes – Mr Brown's current position. The figures were: Tory 48 per cent, Labour 30 per cent, Liberal Democrats 13 per cent.
The findings suggest that Mr Brown may struggle to make his warning of "Tory cuts" in public spending resonate as strongly as it did in the past two elections. As the recession bites, people seem to be more worried about their tax bills than preserving public spending. An important difference next time is that the Tories will be trying to head off unpopular tax increases rather than promising upfront tax cuts.
Ministers admit privately that Labour's poll ratings are likely to "take a hit" as the toll of job losses rises in the new year. There are growing fears in the Cabinet that the sharp rise in unemployment points to a longer recession than Alistair Darling forecast in his pre-Budget report only a month ago. He predicted the economy would start to grow again from next summer. "That's looking optimistic now," one minister conceded last night.
The higher taxes announced by Mr Darling to balance the nation's books after a borrowing rise in the downturn will meet strong public opposition, the poll suggests. By a big margin, people prefer the Tory strategy of spending less on public services and seeking to avoid the planned tax increases. ComRes found that the timing of the election will make little difference to the result. There has been speculation that Mr Brown might call a 2009 poll because people would be more likely to vote for him during the recession and more likely to welcome Mr Cameron's "time for change" pitch once the downturn is over.
Asked how they would vote if the election were held "while the economy was in recession", 39 per cent said Tory, 38 per cent Labour and 14 per cent Liberal Democrat. If the recession were over and the economy growing again, 37 per cent said they would vote Tory, 37 per cent Labour and 16 per cent Liberal Democrat.
Yesterday, Mr Cameron renewed his call for an early election after Mr Brown dismissed reports that he might go to the country next February or March but left open the option of an election later next year.
The Tory leader said Britain could no longer afford the "borrowing binge" and tax rises that would follow. "I suspect there will be lot of 'will he, won't he'. I wish he would just get on with it an hold an election so that the people can decide 'do you want to go on with this crazy borrowing binge which is adding to our debt, building up problems for future generations and delaying the recovery now, or do you want to make a change?" he said. Ministers will counter the Tories' offensive over tax by saying they will slow the planned growth in public spending from 1.8 to 1.2 per cent a year and deliver £5bn of new efficiency savings. They will argue that the lower spending proposed by the Tories would put vital services such as health and education at risk.
According to ComRes, Tory supporters are the most motivated to vote, and Labour's the least likely. Tory "identifiers" are the most loyal, with 94 per cent saying they will vote for the party, compared to 86 per cent of natural Labour supporters and 79 per cent of Liberal Democrat "identifiers".
ComRes telephoned 1,000 adults on 19-21 December 2008. Data was weighted by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules Full tables at comres.co.uk
Proposed tax rises: Rates in the pipeline
* A 45p in the pound tax band on those earning £150,000 and over, from April 2011. Will affect about 290,000 taxpayers.
* A 0.5 per cent increase in National Insurance contributions from April 2011. The measure is set to raise more than £5bn.
* Personal allowance for those on more than £100,000 will be reduced in 2010, at a rate of £1 of allowance lost for every £2 of income above £100,000.