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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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.