A three-point Conservative lead over Labour just before George Osborne’s Budget has now given way to an eight-point deficit.
Tory support has slumped by six points in a single month, down from 39% to 33%, while Labour is up five from 36% to 41%, to claim an eight-point lead.
The Liberal Democrats are unchanged on 15%, while the combined total of the smaller parties has inched up two to stand at 12%, suggesting more support for UKIP and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists.
The Conservative slide is the biggest seen in the monthly Guardian/ICM series since the autumn of 2008, when the onset of the credit crunch briefly produced very volatile political conditions.
It leaves the Tories with their worst score since before the general election.
Labour, meanwhile, has broken through the 40% threshold – often said to be the benchmark for a clear election win – for the first time in many years. Indeed, its 41% score is the party’s strongest showing in the series since May 2003.
At that time, Iain Duncan Smith was heading the embattled Tory opposition to Tony Blair’s government, and Labour will be thrilled at the thought that the fallout from the budget and other problems such as the petrol panic may now have landed David Cameron‘s party in comparable difficulties.
But the detail of the poll does not suggest a sea change in public opinion.
On the crucial question of economic competence, in particular, the Government remains comfortably ahead – with Cameron and Osborne trusted to run the economy properly by 44% of respondents, with 31% believing Labour leader Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, would provide more effective financial management.
This continuing 13-point margin will be a great comfort to the Conservatives, although the trend is now running against them here too.
At the end of last year, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne led Mr Miliband and Mr Balls by 21 points on economic management, a gap which narrowed to 18 in January and 17 just before the Budget, before narrowing by another four points this month.
Ratings for individual politicians suggest that the headline Labour lead is driven more by disillusion with the coalition than by any positive view of the opposition.
By wide margins, voters reject the idea that any of the three party leaders “understand people like me”, and also the suggestion that any of them are “good in a crisis”.
On both scores, Mr Miliband’s standing is somewhat worse than his already negative scores in December.
The big difference, however, concerns Mr Cameron’s perceived competence. At the turn of the year, by 50% to 40% voters trusted him to do well in a crisis. But that 10-point advantage has now turned into a 13 point deficit, with voters now rejecting the idea that he is good in a crisis by a 50% to 37% margin.
The poll asks about voting intentions for Westminster as opposed to the upcoming council elections, where there has been speculation that fringe parties may do well.
Some recent polls have shown a surge in support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), suggesting it could even push the Lib Dems into fourth place. But ICM puts it on just 3%, up two points from 1% a month ago.
The UK scores for other smaller parties are: 4% for the Scottish Nationalists, 1% for Plaid Cymru, 2% for the Greens, 1% for the British National Party and 1% for other minority groupings.
Wow comes to mind but wait for it, now is not to sit on our hands we have the May Local Elections in most cities to reclaim back into Labour’s council. I’m sure that many party activist will be doing their bit(even the armchair members may sit on their bums) the real heroes are the activists that goes out to get their candidates get elected. Now get off your butt and start campaigning for a Labour victory on 3 May 2012.
The likelihood of government approval for a restart of hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – to release shale gas in Lancashire would be a retrograde step.
There is the usual chatter of safeguards and domesday scenarios about existing power sources running out, but the reality is that the private energy transnational corporations are concerned only with driving a quick profit.
Despite all talk about seismic sensors being used to monitor the Preese Hall well site and assurances given about immediate shutdowns in the event of earth tremors, the developers are playing games with public concern.
Well operator Cuadrilla Resources admits that its drilling was responsible for two earthquakes last year of magnitudes 2.3 and 1.5 that hit the Blackpool area, causing residents to report their homes shaking.
Corporate insistence that no damage was incurred is beside the point.
Are citizens to regard being woken from their sleep and frightened by the movement of their homes as normal and acceptable phenomena?
Apparently so since the experts commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change have recommended that Cuadrilla be given the go-ahead.
This is despite their own testimony that fracking-induced earthquakes up to magnitude three are possible, which “would be strongly felt by people within a few kilometres from the epicentre and could cause some alarm.”
The company pledges to proceed with caution to minimise seismic risks, but what will such promises be worth when shareholders insist on enhanced profitability or there is a perceived hitch in gas supplies?
In any case, there are other issues at stake related to air and water pollution that cannot simply be dismissed as the concerns of a trendy, obsessed group of environmental extremists.
Injecting water, sand and chemicals by high-pressure cables into bore holes, once explosives have shattered and cracked the shale, to force out the gas carries likely dangers of pollution for surrounding agriculture.
At a time when almost all of England is facing drought, using scarce water resources for such an operation cannot be justified.
When David Cameron was advised that his party could not be elected without leaving its comfort zone, he enlisted Zac Goldsmith to try to do a makeover job, painting the Tories a greener shade of blue.
Once in office, they have ignored the whimpering of their craven Liberal Democrat partners and reverted to the traditional Tory approach that, if private profits are involved, no scheme can be all bad.
While Tory backbenchers revert to type, deriding environmental campaigners as obstacles to growth and jobs, they miss the reality that a green energy programme, based on prioritising clean and renewable sources emanating from sun and sea could be a major boost to employment and business opportunities.
The shale gas lobby argues that the scale of reserves could drive down energy prices, but such claims should be treated with caution.
We should all remember the nuclear industry propaganda that atomic power would so cheap that metering it would prove unnecessary.
Instead of hopping on board each successive energy industry bandwagon, government should invest seriously in renewable sources and tackle the biggest energy scandal of all – inadequate domestic and workplace insulation, causing much of the heat generated by power stations to be wasted.
Unless this shortcoming is tackled in a national mobilisation, heating costs will continue to rocket and ministers will swallow every gimmick trotted out by the energy profiteers.
In a speech at the Institute of Fiscal Studies Mr Alexander claimed that Britain’s large deficit remains a “clear and present danger to stability” as he ordered government departments to set aside billions of pounds in “rainy day” funds to tighten financial management.
Setting out new rules to be enforced from this year onwards, Mr Alexander said: “These are rules have been drawn up with finance directors from across Whitehall and are designed to fundamentally change and improve financial management across all organisations spending public money.
“Rules that demonstrate the collective determination of government to ensure that never again will our nation’s finances be allowed to get into such a mess.”
Mr Alexander added that the Treasury kept central reserves small at the spending review in order to give the maximum possible to departments.
“It means that departments have to be able to deal with problems that arise from within their own budgets,” he said.
“Many departments already operate a small ‘unallocated provision’ in their annual budgets, to meet smaller pressures that arise.
“And, under the new rules I have asked all departments to identify around 5 per cent of their resource budget that could be reprioritised if new pressures emerge or new policies have to be funded, so there is a shared understanding of how it could be paid for.”
The Lib Dem MP also pointed out that the changes were not a “small tweak to the Whitehall machine.
“They are another signal of our unwavering determination to deliver the fiscal consolidation we promised,” he said.
But TUC general secretary Brendan Barber hit back.
He said: “The government’s harsh programme of spending cuts has already done considerable harm to our economy and to our communities.
“Asking departments to make further cutbacks is another sign of the government’s obsession with deficit reduction and its lack of initiative when it comes to growth policy.
“Instead what the UK economy needs is an ambitious programme of investment in jobs to get the economy growing and the deficit down.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis warned that communities that had already been hit hard are now bracing themselves for more pain.
“The worst of the cuts are to come,” Mr Prentis warned.
Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna also criticised the coalition for lacking “compelling vision of what it wants to do” beyond cutting the deficit.
“The problem here is of course we’ve got to reduce the deficit. That’s very important, but that can not be the limit of the ambition of an economic policy for the country,” he said.
He also accused ministers of failing to pursue the “government strategies and industrial policy we need to build an economy which will be fit for purpose in the future and promote long-term growth.”
Currently Unison is balloting its health service members on the government’s pensions “offer” with no recommendation for further industrial action, while 400,000 Unite and PCS members prepare to strike on May 10. Where is the pensions campaign going?
“The new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers. We are no longer requiring private, voluntary and social enterprise providers to take on the risks of defined benefit that deter many (from) bidding for contracts in the first place.”
So said Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, explaining the government’s public-sector pensions policy to Parliament last December.
How much clearer do we want them to be? It’s not about “affordability” or “deficit reduction.” It’s about privatisation. In order to sell off services to the private sector, the government has to do a number of things.
First, reduce the cost of pensions to potential private employers.
Second, abolish national pay rates and promote workplace pay bargaining, with regional pay as a starting point.
Third, undermine public-service workers’ conditions to encourage “flexibility” in work patterns, hiring and firing etc.
Fourth, undermine public-sector trade unionism.
All these are under way.
So when we decide a strategy for the pensions campaign, we have to be clear among ourselves and with our communities that this is a struggle against the central plank of the government’s political platform – the wholesale sell-off of public services from which profit can be made.
Those services that cannot be used to make profit will be abandoned to Big Society volunteers in the name of “deficit reduction.” We already have McJobs. Now we’ll see B&Q services – do it yourself!
Currently Unison health service members are being balloted on the government pensions “pay more, work longer, get less” position.
The Unison health service group executive put this to members with no proposal on acceptance or rejection, but advising members that “it is the best that can be achieved by negotiation” and that rejection would trigger “the risk that the government would impose a worse offer.”
They also warn members that rejection would mean “sustained industrial action, bringing out occupational groups, members across a geographical area or targeting specific employers, either on a rolling programme or specific periods or on an all-out basis.”
The executive asserts that “the position of other unions is that although some have rejected, none have planned any further industrial action” – a situation which is no longer the case.
The ballot started on April 10 and finishes on April 27. The Unison national executive recently agreed to update the information about other unions’ positions in the light of the Unite and PCS action on May 10 – but many Unison members will have voted already.
What is missing from this advice and indeed from most of the pensions struggle “strategy” across the unions is that further industrial action can be sustainable and ultimately successful if it is built into a high-profile political campaign against privatisation.
Such a campaign would put the unions at the heart of communities already struggling against spending cuts and shoddy private providers. It would lead to fertile ground for us to promote an alternative economic strategy as agreed at TUC Congress. It would enable the unions to work more effectively with the People’s Charter to build a real movement at local and national levels for that alternative.
So the question is not: “Do we accept the offer, or do we commit to further industrial action?”
The question needs to be: “Can we build a sustained and growing movement of unions and communities for public services in which industrial action would be just one – though a very important – part?”
What would such a campaign look like? We might consider the following six-point plan.
– We need a hard-hitting joint union statement identifying the privatisation strategy of the government as the political context of the pensions struggle
– The unions need to openly challenge the legitimacy of the Con-Dem coalition – an unelected millionaires’ government made up of two parties that each lost the general election
– We need to identify the alternative economic and political strategy promoting the People’s Charter – demanding that it form the basis of the manifesto of any political party that claims to represent working people and wants their votes
– We should launch a sustained high-profile campaign for public services at local level involving regional TUCs, trades councils, People’s Charter groups and others with street stalls, house-to-house door-knocking, demonstrations, lobbies and occupations against cuts and privatisation – explaining this as the context of the pensions and pay struggles
– The unions’ public-sector liaison group of the TUC should approach the private-sector unions and the National Pensioners Convention for co-ordinated campaigning on the issues of public-sector, private-sector and state retirement pensions.
– Further “guerilla” industrial action (including the things in the Unison advice to members) called as part of a strategy of building the wider, broader movement against privatisation and the government.
In this context we need to note the work of the Institute of Employment Rights, which shows that the 1998 UK Human Rights Act obliges British courts to give effect to European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings.
The ECHR has ruled that its convention guaranteeing “freedom of assembly and association” requires states to permit peaceful protests and strikes against government policy – and that includes general strike action.
Could this explain the devious attempts by the Con-Dems to discredit the ECHR and repeal the Human Rights Act?
We may not be ready for a general strike – yet! But we need to up the stakes. The Con-Dems think they can beat us by encouraging us to consider their full-on political attack as just another dispute, and then set about “dividing and ruling” us.