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Tuesday, 29 May, 2001, 21:03 GMT 22:03 UK
Hague claws back lead on Europe

Nyta Mann

William Hague's decision to campaign hard on traditional Conservative issues appears to have paid some dividends, with his party improving its ratings on Europe and crime, according to a new ICM poll for BBC News Online.

The poll also suggests that while more voters expect to pay higher taxes under Labour than the Tories, they still back Tony Blair's party to manage the economy.

The survey was carried out after Baroness Thatcher's declaration that Britain must "never" join the euro and since Mr Hague insisted that 7 June was a referendum on the single European currency.

It shows 41% of voters choosing the Tories as most likely to protect the UK's interests in the EU - up from 36% a week ago.

Q. Which party do you think will best protect the UK's interests in the European Union?

Mr Hague's gain on the issue appears to be at Labour's expense, with its support dropping to 30% from 37%. Backing for Liberal Democrat European policy appears steady at 10% - a single point up from a week ago.

With Tory support apparently "flat-lining" in voting-intention polls and many analysts forecasting a Tory meltdown, this latest survey appears to bring the Conservative leader some much needed comfort.

It seems to vindicate Mr Hague's attempt - criticised by some in his own party - to make Europe the focus of the second half of his election campaign.

Mr Hague will also take heart from a rise in his personal ratings - up to 22% from 16% last week in the "best prime minister" stakes.

Tony Blair remains well ahead, however, despite slipping from 47% to 44%; the Liberal Democrats' Charles Kennedy crept up from 16% to 17%.

Q. Which party leader do you think would make the best prime minister?

The Conservatives have also gained ground from Labour on the issue of crime, according to the survey.

From being neck-and-neck before the campaign, 36% now say the Tories have the best policies to tackle crime (up five points), while backing for Labour has slid downwards to 26% (a drop of four points).

As on Europe, backing for the Lib Dems on crime appears more or less steady at 10% (up from 9%).

Q. Which party do you think has the best policies to tackle crime?

Trust

The survey appears to bring good news for Mr Blair on the economy, though, suggesting Labour's strategy of attacking proposed Tory tax cuts as damaging to public services is proving successful.

Asked under which party they expected to pay the most tax, more respondents (37%) chose Labour than any other party. Significantly, however, Labour also remains the party trusted by most voters (44%) to handle the economy, according to the poll.

Q. Under which of the following parties do you think you would pay the most taxes?

Labour's repeat of its 1997 pledge not to raise income tax levels, though, is cut across by the survey's findings on what voters believe the chancellor should do if taxes did have to increase.

According to the poll the vast majority of respondents, 74%, think that in such a situation he should raise taxes for those earning above 100,000.

Only 9% believe he should increase the threshold for National Insurance contributions - a "stealth tax" move Chancellor Gordon Brown has conspicuously refused to rule out.

After Labour, the Lib Dems are judged the next most likely tax-raisers, on 29%, while 24% believe the Tories to be most likely to make them pay higher taxes.

Backing for the Tories as most trusted to manage the economy remains at 32%, with the Lib Dems at 8%.

Q. Under which of the following parties do you think public services would improve the most?

Women and ethnic minorities back Labour

The also poll shows a significant fall in Labour's ratings as the party that best supports the interests of ethnic minorities: 38% believe Labour looks after their interests best.

This is an 11% drop on Labour's rating of 49% before the start of the campaign, and may reflect the hard line the party has adopted on issues such as asylum.

But the poll suggests Labour remains ahead of the other main parties, with the Lib Dems scoring 16% and the Tories 14%.

All the main political parties have also suffered criticism for the lack of women playing frontline roles in their election campaigns.

According to the survey, though, 36% of voters (rising to 38% among female respondents) believe Labour is the party that best supports the interests of women. The Tories and Lib Dems appear to be virtually neck-and-neck on 15 and 14% respectively.

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