A winning message for Miliband?

The Labour leader should pledge to scrap the VAT increase, not merely condemn it.

Like 2010, 2011 begins with Labour and the Conservatives at war over the economy. Last year it was Alistair Darling attacking the Tories' £34bn "black hole", this year it's Ed Miliband condemning tomorrow's VAT rise. The Labour leader will take to the campaign trail in Oldham East and Saddleworth (the first big electoral test of his leadership) and attack the increase as the "wrong tax, at the wrong time".

On paper, this should be an easy win for Miliband. The VAT increase is unfair (as David Cameron noted in April 2009, "it hits the poorest the hardest"), unnecessary and economically reckless. In his campaign against the rise, Miliband can also count on the support of some unfamiliar allies, including the Taxpayers' Alliance and the Daily Mail. And he can handily remind voters that it was the Lib Dems who warned of a "Tory VAT bombshell" (before joining the assault) and Cameron who insisted during the general election campaign that he had "absolutely no plans" to raise the tax.

Miliband will say: "Today we start to see the Tory-led agenda move from Downing Street to your street. At midnight VAT goes up, hitting people's living standards, small businesses and jobs. The VAT rise is the most visible example of what we mean when we say the government is going too far and too fast."

But if he's to win over the voters, he will need to rebut the charge that Labour's profligacy made the tax rise "unavoidable". Miliband should point out that the VAT increase was only required to pay for tax cuts elsewhere: £12.4bn of the £13.5bn to be raised could have been saved, had the government not cut other taxes including corporation tax, council tax, National Insurance and income tax.

As Robert Chote noted in May, while he was still director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies: "When Mr Osborne said that 'the years of debt and spending' made the £13bn increase in VAT unavoidable you might just as well say it was his desire to cut other taxes that made it so."

After this, Miliband should pledge to scrap the rise, not merely condemn it. On too many issues, from the Spending Review to tuition fees to education, Labour's attack has been blunted by the lack of a clear alternative. This mistake must not be repeated.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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