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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.