Labour should get behind Balls's VAT cut

The party must not miss a chance to redefine the economic debate.

Ed Balls's bold call for a temporary cut in VAT has not received the support that it deserves. On The Daily Politics earlier today, Alistair Darling refused to endorse the plan and Labour has failed to rebut George Osborne's claim that a temporary reduction to 17.5 per cent would cost £52bn.

The FT, which claims that Balls failed to brief the shadow cabinet on his plan, reports one member as saying: "The problem is that it is playing to our weaknesses and creates the impression that we can't face up to tough decisions."

It's a pity that so many others share this view. Balls's call for a VAT cut was a chance for Labour to redefine the parameters of the economic debate and to regain the initiative from the Tories. As I blogged last week, contrary to Osborne's claim that the measure is "unfunded", there is much evidence that a cut in VAT would pay for itself. Mark Littlewood, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs and no friend of Balls, agrees with this. He tweeted earlier today: "in the odd position of agreeing with Ed Balls rather than the PM on VAT. 20% is quite possibly on "wrong side" of the Laffer curve." It's exactly these sorts of arguments that ministers need to be making. A temporary VAT cut would boost consumer confidence, lower inflation (thus reducing the risk of a premature rate rise), protect retail jobs and increase real wages, meaning it would likely be self-funding.

History teaches us that tax cuts can change the political weather. It was George Osborne's populist pledge to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m that persuaded Gordon Brown not to call an early election. Labour must not miss an opportunity to prove that it, not the Tories, is on the side of consumers.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.