By Tom Clark | Guardian | Oct. 24, 2011
Ukip supporters demonstrate outside parliament, as the Commons prepared to vote on whether to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Conservative rebels pushing for an in-or-out referendum on Europe are riding the tide of public opinion, according to a Guardian/ICM poll.
Some 70% of voters want a vote on Britain's EU membership, and by a substantial nine-point margin respondents say they would vote for UK withdrawal.
Forty-nine per cent would vote to get Britain out of Europe, against just 40% who prefer to stay in.
There is a clear majority for staging a referendum in all social classes and regions of the UK. Men and women are similarly keen, although rather more Conservative (71%) than Labour voters (65%) are calling for a poll.
Overall, just 23% of all voters say they would be against a vote that "could ask the public whether the UK should remain in the European Union or pull out instead".
On the crunch question of which way they would vote, there are marked differences across the age range.
Where just 28% of the youngest voters aged 18-24 would vote to quit the EU, 63% of those aged 65 and over would do the same.
An outright majority of Tory voters – some 56% – would vote to leave, as against 34% who would prefer to stay in. By contrast among Labour and Liberal Democrats, there are majorities for staying in Europe, although there are also sizeable minorities among both parties' supporters – 38% and 44% respectively – who would vote to get out.
As David Cameron stands up to make the case against staging a referendum today, he will argue that regardless of the public's feelings on Europe, the issue is not currently their most pressing priority today.Past polling evidence suggests that Europe is not a pressing priority for voters, with just 1% of the electorate having told ICM in the runup to the last general election that Europe was the most important question in how they would cast their vote.
But the poll contains signs that the Eurosceptic side of public opinion is firmer than the Euro-enthusiast element. The 40% who would vote to stay in split between 23% who would definitely vote to stay in and 18% who say they would only probably do so.
Among the 49% who want to leave, by contrast, 34% describe their position as "definite", against 15% who would "probably" vote to leave. The 49%-40% split for pulling out of the EU represents a turnaround in public opinion on a decade ago.
When ICM asked a slightly differently worded question in May 2001, by 68% to 19% the public indicated Britain should remain a member, a 49% lead for the pro-Europeans.
And the most Eurosceptic segment of opinion has grown rapidly: where 34% of all respondents now say they would "definitely" vote for pulling out, in 2001 just 13% said they were "strongly" in favour of pulling out.
The poll also shows that while the public is increasingly fearful of deteriorating economic conditions, Labour is making only limited inroads as a result.
Compared with last month's survey, Labour edges up one point at 39%, a four point lead over the Conservatives, who drop two points to 35%. The Liberal Democrats languish on 13%, down one point on last time. The combined total of assorted other parties is also 13%, up one point on September.
The four-point Labour lead is as big as any this year, and the party's 39% standing matches its previous 2011 peak in January. But the survey comes after sharp rises in both unemployment and inflation.
Official figures last week recorded the cost of living rising at its fastest rate in 20 years.
Asked to consider the economy, their own financial position and ability to keep up with living costs, just 43% of voters report feeling confident, as against 56% who do not.
That 13-point gap represents a marked deterioration on when the question was last asked, back in June – before the summer's violent stock market gyrations. Back then, the gap was only seven points, with 46% expressing confidence and 53% the reverse.
This confidence index has only once before registered a more negative score, in July 2008, and the mood has blackened markedly compared with last year, when more voters reported being confident than not.
Asked to pick up out Britain's most pressing financial problems, voters record inflation as their biggest concern. Some 65% identify the rising cost of living as a major worry, followed by 59% who point to the lack of jobs.
Potentially worrying for a coalition set on a cuts-led strategy for stability is the fact that voters seem more concerned about threatened public services than tax rates.
Some 47% nominate "cutbacks in public services, tax credits and benefits" as a pressing concern, against just 23% who point to high taxes, 36% who identify mismanaged banks and 29% who highlight the gap between rich and poor.
There is generally positive reaction to the protests against the financial system on Wall Street and in the City of London. Some 38% say "the protesters are naive; there is no practical alternative to capitalism – the point is to get it moving again". But against them, 51% judge that "the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people".
If this is evidence of a shift of sentiment towards the economic left, it has not yet hurt the coalition's standing – or benefited Labour. The general sense continues to be that the right team are in charge.
Asked to put aside their own party preference, and consider which team is better placed to manage the economy properly, 37% choose David Cameron and George Osborne, against 26% for Ed Miliband and his shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
Despite dipping behind Labour in voting intentions, the prime minister and chancellor will draw comfort from maintaining this 11-point edge.
It is larger than their 38%-31% lead over Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling on the same question in December 2009, at a time when the Conservatives enjoyed an overall nine-point lead.
ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,003 adults aged 18+ by telephone on 21-23 October 2011. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.