Labour should pledge not to raise VAT

A promise not to raise this regressive tax would hand Brown one of the "dividing lines" he craves.

As well as being the day that Gordon Brown finally announced that an election would be held on 6 May (he accurately described it as "the least well-kept secret of recent years") today is also the day that the new 50p tax rate comes into force.

It's not a bad day for this to happen. The new top rate of tax, like the one-off tax on bank bonuses, is one of the most popular policies Labour has adopted in recent years. A YouGov poll found that 68 per cent of voters support the introduction of the 50p rate.

With the economy defining this election like no other, the parties' tax pledges will come under even more scrutiny than normal. Cabinet ministers, led by Ed Balls, have challenged the Tories to admit that they will need to raise VAT to plug the deficit.

George Osborne has insisted that he has "no plans" to increase VAT, but this is clearly a non-denial denial. As Sunder Katwala reminds us, the former Tory chancellor Geoffrey Howe similarly declared that "we have absolutely no intention of doubling VAT" during the 1979 campaign, and then did just that. Later, it was the Major government that raised VAT by 2.5 per cent to its current level of 17.5 per cent.

But until Labour issues a copper-bottomed guarantee that it won't do the same, the party's attack on the Tories won't win over any voters.

The Labour manifesto, a preview of which appears in today's Guardian, should contain such a pledge. A promise not to raise the most regressive tax of all would emphasise Labour's commitment to fair taxation and would hand Brown one of the "dividing lines" he so craves.

The Tories' promise to reverse part of the government's planned National Insurance increase kick-started their faltering campaign. A promise not to raise VAT could do the same for Labour.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The SATs strike: why parents are taking their children out of school to protest against exams

Parents are keeping their children away from school to highlight the dangers of “over testing” young pupils.

My heart is beating fast and I feel sick. I force myself to eat some chocolate because someone said it might help. I take a deep breath and open the door…

The hall is silent except for the occasional cough and the shuffling of chairs. The stench of nervous sweat lingers in the air.

“Turn over your papers, you may begin.”

I look at the clock and I am filled with panic. I feel like I might pass out. I pick up my pen but my palms are so sweaty it is hard to grip it properly. I want to cry. I want to scream, and I really need the toilet.

This was how I felt before every GCSE exam I took. I was 16. This was also how I felt before taking my driving test, aged 22, and my journalism training (NCTJ) exams when I was 24.

Being tested makes most of us feel anxious. After all, we have just one chance to get stuff right. To remember everything we have learned in a short space of time. To recall facts and figures under pressure; to avoid failure.

Even the most academic of adults can find being in an exam situation stressful, so it’s not hard to imagine how a young child about to sit their Year 2 SATs must feel.

Today thousands of parents are keeping their kids off school in protest at these tough new national tests. They are risking fines, prosecution and possible jail time for breach of government rules. By yesterday morning, more than 37,000 people had signed a petition backing the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign and I was one of them.

I have a daughter in reception class who will be just six years old when she sits her SATs. These little ones are barely out of pull-up pants and now they are expected to take formal exams! What next? Babies taught while they are in the womb? Toddlers sitting spelling tests?

Infants have fragile self-esteem. A blow to their confidence at such an impressionable age can affect them way into adulthood. We need to build them up not tear them down. We need to ensure they enjoy school, not dread it. Anxiety and fear are not conducive to learning. It is like throwing books at their heads as a way of teaching them to read. It will not work. They are not machines. They need to want to learn.

When did we stop treating children like children? Maybe David Cameron would be happier if we just stopped reproducing all together. After all, what use to the economy are these pesky kids with their tiny brains and individual emotional needs? Running around all happy and carefree, selfishly enjoying their childhood without any regard to government statistics or national targets.

Year 2 SATs, along with proposals for a longer school day and calls for baseline reception assessments (thankfully now dropped) are just further proof that the government do not have our children’s best interests at heart. It also shows a distinct lack of common sense. It doesn’t take a PhD in education to comprehend that a child is far more likely to thrive in a calm, supportive and enjoyable environment. Learning should be fun. The value in learning through play seems to be largely underestimated.

The UK already has a far lower school starting age than many other countries, and in my opinion, we are already forcing them into a formal learning environment way too soon.

With mental health illness rates among British children already on the rise, it is about time our kids were put first. The government needs to stop “throwing books at heads” and start listening to teachers and parents about what is best for the children.

Emily-Jane Clark is a freelance journalist, mother-of-two and creator of stolensleep.com, a humorous antithesis to baby advice.