Opinion polls give no guide to voting

Geraldine Hackett

Latest evidence from the polls, that most voters want to see tax increases to pay for higher spending on schools and hospitals, may or may not convince Government ministers that there are votes to be gained by increasing funds to the public services.

The problem with the electorate is that it is capable of holding contradictory views. According to Nick Sparrow, managing director of the polling company ICM, while voters might say they want more spent on education, they may still be tempted to vote for the political party that is more likely to cut taxes.

The ICM poll in last week's Guardian showed that 60 per cent of voters want the basic rate of tax increased from 25p to 30p to pay for better schools and hospitals. Such an option is slightly more likely to be favoured by the better-off middle-classes than manual workers, although the spread is fairly equal.

The cynical reaction to these findings is mainly due to the fact that the Conservatives won the last election despite opinion polls at the time that showed a growing shift in favour of higher public spending. In 1979, when Gallup asked a similar question on taxes versus services, only 34 per cent of those polled wanted higher taxes and higher spending on social services. Another 34 per cent wanted tax cuts even if it meant reducing services and 25 per cent did not want any change.

By 1985, Gallup was finding that 59 per cent of voters wanted improved public services, even if they had to be paid for through tax increases. But that did not mean the electorate was ready to vote out Conservative governments in 1987 or in 1992. In the last election campaign, voters may even have been influenced by suggestions that Labour might put up taxes to pay for spending plans.

At the end of the day, says Bob Wybrow of Gallup, voters' perceptions of the policies of political parties are not a foolproof guide to the results of a general election. In 1987, for instance, Gallup found that voters believed Labour had the best policies on the issues that most concerned them such as unemployment and the health service.

Similar views are held by Nick Sparrow at ICM. "It is generally thought, " he says, "that when it comes to a general election, the electorate votes with its pocket, voting for the party least likely to put up taxes. Personally speaking, I don't believe higher spending on education will win elections. Voters' views on higher public spending do not appear to translate into votes for parties in favour of higher spending."

Bob Worcester of MORI is convinced that people say they are in favour of spending on schools and hospitals, but that they do not want to pay for it from their own income. "When it comes to voting, behaviour is influenced by complex patterns. It partly has to do with how their parents vote, and also by other more general factors such as class and environment. There are very few single-issue voters," he says.

This year's campaigns against cuts in education have demonstrated the strength of parent power, but in fact only about 30 per cent of the electorate as a whole have children in state schools. The impact of the cuts on schools is nevertheless likely to add to the unpopularity of the Government.

Last month Gallup found that the Conservatives were doing worse than at any time since the war, with only 23.4 per cent of the electorate saying they intended to vote Conservative. The last record "low" was in the Thatcher era - two years before a general election which the Conservatives won.

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