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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.