The Tories’ remarkable U-turn on the “death tax”

Do they now regret that sinister election poster?

Death Tax

One of the most misleading posters of the last election campaign was the Tories' macabre attack on Labour's "death tax" (a phrase revealingly borrowed from the US right). The poster accused Labour of planning to introduce a £20,000 levy on estates to fund social care for the elderly, ignoring that this was just one option among many being explored by ministers.

The mere mention of a compulsory levy prompted Andrew Lansley, the then shadow health secretary, to walk out of the cross-party talks on the future of care. But now, having established his own independent commission on the subject, Lansley has ruled that the panel should be free to examine compulsory funding after all.

One can hardly blame him: a "death tax" remains the fairest and most equitable way of paying for social care, but his political opportunism is galling.

The need to pander to the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and to terrify "Middle England" into voting for the Tories, took precedence over the need for a fair and objective examination of one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business. The present system, whereby only those with assets of less than £23,000 receive state funding, forces many to sell their family homes. A flat-rate levy on the estates of the deceased would allow the elderly to avoid this distressing fate.

Andy Burnham, who has made the creation of a National Care Service a main plank of his campaign, now has the chance to land some hefty blows on the coalition. As Ed Balls's standing continues to be boosted by his relentless (and highly effective) attacks on Michael Gove, this could be the issue that gives Burnham's candidacy the momentum it badly needs.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.