John Curtice: Blair on course for another landslide as voters shun Tory tax cuts

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Any doubts that Labour might have had about the wisdom of Tony Blair's decision last week to call a general election will be dispelled by the results of our latest exclusive NOP poll. After having fallen from 12 points in February and five points in March to just three points last week, Labour's lead over the Conservatives has increased once more to six points.

Any doubts that Labour might have had about the wisdom of Tony Blair's decision last week to call a general election will be dispelled by the results of our latest exclusive NOP poll. After having fallen from 12 points in February and five points in March to just three points last week, Labour's lead over the Conservatives has increased once more to six points.

This represents a swing of just 1.5 points since the last election. If that swing were to be repeated across the country as a whole Mr Blair would still be left with just the kind of safe three-figure majority he hopes to secure - 134. Mr Howard would find himself having made hardly any progress at all, a net gain of just four seats to 169. Such an outcome would doubtless precipitate another crisis of confidence in the Conservative Party after 5 May.

Our poll suggests that Britain's main opposition party may have seriously misread the nation's mood on tax. So important are tax cuts to the party's election strategy that it did not reveal the full details of just how it would disburse the £4bn of cuts that the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, has promised he would deliver in his first Budget in yesterday's manifesto. Instead the details are being saved in the belief that they might tempt the electorate later in the campaign.

They seem unlikely to do so. Only a quarter of voters prefer the Conservatives' strategy of cutting taxes by £4bn rather than keeping taxes as they are and spending the money instead on key public services. The latter option, promoted by Labour, is backed by no less than 65 per cent of the electorate.

However, it may not just be the Conservatives who have misread the public mood on tax. So also it seems may have Labour. For there is also widespread support for the Liberal Democrat proposal of increasing the top rate of income tax on incomes of over £100,000 from 40p in the pound to 50p, a policy opposed by Labour. No less than 73 per cent told NOP they were in favour, only 22 per cent that they were opposed. Even 68 per cent of those in the top AB social grade are in favour.

It may well be that for the majority of voters, including middle-class ones, the prospect of earning more than £100,000 is remote. If so then the proposal might look like an opportunity to most voters to secure more spending on the services they use without themselves having to pay for it.

Or perhaps they just think it would be fairer. Either perspective would doubtless make the proposal attractive to the majority of voters. But perhaps the Liberal Democrats too have made a mistake; one shared by all three major parties.

For it appears that people's attitudes towards tax and spend will not determine the way that people vote to anything like the degree that the prominence given to the issue in the campaign might suggest. Certainly the attitudes of the various parties' supporters are far from distinct.

For example, while Conservative voters are somewhat more in favour of tax cuts than Labour or Liberal Democrat supporters, the difference between them in their level of support - 12 per cent - is relatively small. Well over half of Conservatives oppose their party's stance, but they are evidently minded to vote for the party nevertheless.

It may not be tax but the Liberal Democrats do need something to boost their campaign. They remain on one-fifth of the vote, just a little up on 2001. While they are winning votes from Labour they are also losing them to the Conservatives. This is not a recipe for a Liberal Democrat breakthrough.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University

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