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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Europe tops election issues

Nick Assinder

Europe has become the most important issue facing voters at the election, according to a new poll for BBC News Online.

The figures suggest it is now ahead of health, education and tax as the policy which will have the greatest influence on the way people vote.

Older voters, mostly those over 55, are clearly deeply concerned about the issue, putting it way ahead of other policies. But younger people are more concerned about education and tax.

Q. When deciding which party to vote for, which ONE of the following issues has the greatest influence on your decision?

However, the figures also suggest Labour has regained its lead over the Tories as the party people think best to protect the UK's interests in the EU, and that voters are split over British entry into the single currency.

Only a tiny proportion, 12%, want Britain to join the euro as soon as possible while 22% never want to sign up.

But, while William Hague will welcome the suggestion that Europe may become a central part of the election battleground, there are mixed messages in the figures for both party leaders.

Only 34% think Britain should join the euro at some point when the economic conditions are right, which is effectively Labour's policy.

And just 28% think membership should be ruled out for the next few years, which is close to William Hague's policy.

Plenty to fight for

But, when all the figures are added together, it suggests the number of those either adamantly against the euro or who want a long delay before considering entry stand at 50%, compared to 46% who are, to some degree, enthusiastic about the project.

Q. In your opinion which party do you trust to best protect the UK's interests in Europe?

That suggests that there is still plenty to be fought for over the single currency.

Labour has attempted to play down the whole issue during the campaign, with some claiming they fear it could cost them votes at the poll.

Mr Hague, meanwhile, has continued his Keep the Pound rallies around the country and is said to be planning to concentrate on the issue during the last week of the campaign.

Most will be surprised to find Europe at the top of voters' concerns and the figures show a clear split based on age.

Tax deadlock

What may concern Mr Hague most, however, is the fact that Labour has sneaked a one-point lead over him as the party people trust best to protect their interests in Europe.

That is six points up on the previous month, while the Tories are down one point, and means Labour has now been in the lead for two out of the last three months.

That is a lead Mr Hague will dearly love to overturn if he is to win significant ground on the issue.

Q. In your opinion, which party has the best policies on tax matters?

Meanwhile, the poll also shows that Labour and the Tories are virtually neck and neck when it comes to the popularity of their tax policies.

That suggests that after two weeks of the economy and taxation dominating the polls, the two parties may have fought themselves into a deadlock over the issue.

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