Is Brown planning a March election?

Labour should avoid delaying an election until June

I've long thought that Gordon Brown should avoid the ignominy of an election at the last possible date (3 June). The parallels with John Major would be too uncomfortable.

So I'm not surprised to see a story in today's Telegraph suggesting that Brown could go to the polls on 25 March. Andrew Porter writes: "Some civil servants have noted that government planning for the period after the end of January is noticeably light, adding to suggestions that No 10 could be planning to call a surprise poll."

A Conservative source told him: "March is in our minds. Gordon Brown knows he still has a small window to cause some element of surprise.

"We are ready if it happens."

An early election would allow Labour neatly to avoid breaking its 2005 pledge not to raise income tax during this parliament. The 50p income-tax rate will take effect from April, raising the possibility that the Tories may be forced not merely to tolerate the tax, but actually to introduce it.

The Conservative civil war over Europe that many Labour activists hope for has so far failed to materialise (dissent has come from such token figures as Bill Cash and Barry Legg), but Brown could yet create the conditions for a Tory tax war.

The new tax rate is loathed by many Conservatives, including Boris Johnson, who has described it as an "assault on London" and has accused Labour of waging "class war". But David Cameron and George Osborne have made it clear that everyone must pay their "fair share". Labour should take the chance to expose these divisions in an election campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.