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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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.