Balls heightens the pressure on Osborne to cut taxes

Labour's new line: any tax cuts are better than no tax cuts.

With the Budget now just a month away, both Labour and the Lib Dems are finalising their wish lists for George Osborne. By far the most interesting intervention in today's papers is that of Ed Balls, who uses a column in the Sunday Times to put the case for tax cuts to stimulate the economy.

You'll be familiar with Balls's call for a temporary cut in VAT and a National Insurance tax break for small firms (both part of Labour's ubiquitous five point plan for jobs) but should these demands fall on deaf ears, the shadow chancellor has a plan B. If Osborne "can't bring himself to reverse his VAT mistake", he writes, he has other options. For the same amount of money, he could "cut the basic rate of income tax by 3p for a year. Or raise the income tax personal allowance to over £10,000. Or increase tax credits for almost 6 million working people by around £2,000." With the economy on the brink of a double-dip recession and unemployment heading towards three million, Balls rightly argues that some tax cuts are better than no tax cuts:

It would be better to cut VAT now - it's fairer and quicker and would help pensioners and others who don't pay income tax. But any substantial tax cuts to help households and stimulate the economy would be better than doing nothing.

By lending his weight to the Lib Dems' key demand - an accelerated increase in the personal allowance - Labour's Keynesian rottweiler heightens the pressure on Osborne to offer some relief. From his time as shadow chancellor onwards, Osborne has always opposed what he calls "unfunded tax cuts". But many Tory MPs, sharing Arthur Laffer's belief that tax cuts are self-financing, would like him to do nothing more than reduce the burden. And with the Chancellor likely to undershoot the OBR's deficit forecast of £127bn by around £3bn, he will find it harder to argue that any giveaway would be fiscally irresponsible. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, for instance, has said that Osborne could cut taxes by £10bn without triggering a bond market revolt and a rise in interest rates.

As Tory MP David Ruffley said of a temporary VAT cut:

Even if we can't find the money for tax cuts from public spending savings, we could add it to the deficit and it is not going to send the markets into a tizzy, I don't think anyone really believes that. The markets will not go haywire if there was a modest loosening in borrowing in the short run if it was for the right reason.

The Chancellor, an inveterate political schemer, will no doubt have something up his sleeve but with Labour, the Lib Dems and his own MPs all urging him to slash taxes it had better be something special.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage