Osborne's council tax freeze is an old announcement

The Chancellor promised to freeze council tax for two years in his 2008 conference speech.

You could be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne has pulled a rabbit out of a hat with his pledge to freeze council tax for a second year running. Indeed, most of the papers lead on the story this morning and treat it as a new announcement. "Tories find £805m for council tax bill freeze," says the Times, adding that Osborne, who will address the Conservative conference today, has offered "comfort" amid the "austerity drive".

But the truth is that this is merely a restatement of existing policy. Osborne first promised a two-year council tax freeze in his speech to the 2008 Conservative conference. "I can tell you today that the next Conservative Government will freeze your Council Tax for at least two years," he said.

The policy went on to feature in the Tories' 2010 election manifesto and the coalition agreement included a pledge to "freeze council tax in England for at least one year", and to "seek to freeze it for a further year."

With his growth strategy under attack from Tory backbenchers, it's no surprise that Osborne is talking up this measure. But it is indicative of the weakness of his plan that, with growth stagnant (the economy has grown by just 0.2 per cent in the last nine months), the best he can offer is a re-announced £805m council tax freeze. Families paying an extra £450 a year in VAT (owing to Osborne's decision to raise the tax to a record high of 20 per cent) will gain just £72 from the measure.

Were Osborne truly determined to stimulate growth, he would have announced an emergency tax cut such as a temporary reduction in VAT (as advocated by Ed Balls). A VAT cut would boost consumer spending, lower inflation, protect retail jobs and increase real wages. When Alistair Darling reduced VAT to 15 per cent during the financial crisis, consumers spent £9bn more than they would otherwise have done. A VAT cut today would be a similarly effective fiscal stimulus. As Boris Johnson wisely observed in his Telegraph column in July, "[I]f we were to cut taxes now, it might be best to start with VAT to get people shopping again." Osborne's decision to raise VAT (a measure he described as "permanent") by 2.5 per cent to an all-time high of 20 per cent automatically knocked 0.3 per cent off annual growth (OBR figures).

A council tax freeze will do little to stimulate growth and little to relieve families facing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1920s. We'll get a better idea of Osborne's plan when he addresses the Tories at 11:20am today (we'll be live blogging his speech on The Staggers). But so far, all the signs are that he will offer little to combat the growth crisis facing Britain.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.