Will Balls be forced to use the 50p tax to protect benefits?

Pegging the welfare uprating to the 50p tax rate would be an expensive decision in terms of future policy development.

Ed Balls yesterday gave the clearest indication yet of how Labour intends to handle coalition plans to raise benefits by less than the rate of inflation over the next three years.

George Osborne’s aim to put a Welfare Uprating Bill before parliament next year is plainly meant as a political trap for Labour – forcing them, or so the Chancellor sees it, into unpopular defence of wasteful spending on benefit-dependent layabouts. (The nuances of Osborne’s calculation and the dilemmas it poses for Labour are examined in more detail here, here and here.)

Balls was challenged in parliament to say whether he would support the measure. The nub of his reply was to suggest that Labour would only back the real terms cut to welfare provision on the condition that the top 50p rate of income tax is restored. Specifically he said:

“On the question he asked, we will look at the legislation. But if he intends to go ahead with such an unfair hit on mid- and lower-income working families, while he’s giving a £3 billion top rate tax cut, we will oppose it.”

There is no chance of the 50p tax rate coming back, so in effect Labour is committed to voting against the Welfare Uprating Bill and hoping to reframe the argument around fair contributions from the top of society when those at the bottom – specifically those in work and struggling to get by – are hit hardest.

Much commentary on Labour’s position has focused on the difficulties the party will face winning over voters who are hostile to the idea of benefit “scroungers”.  Balls’s solution indicates that he has his eye on a different dimension to the problem, which is that by opposing Osborne’s move he implicitly makes a spending commitment – and the shadow chancellor is deeply averse to making any of those before he has to.

Balls will be alert to the accusation coming down the line that, whatever Labour says it plans to do about the deficit after 2015, it has already implicitly offered to raise spending on benefits. This can easily be fashioned into an attack along the lines summarised by one shadow cabinet minister as “the £10bn benefits black hole in Labour’s plans”. Not surprisingly, that is a charge Balls is determined to avoid.

Pegging the welfare uprating to the 50p tax rate at least provides some fiscal cover to the Labour position – but it would be an expensive decision in terms of future policy development. It implies a Labour pledge to restore the top rate as soon as the party gets into power and then pre-emptively spends the proceeds, which means the cash isn’t available for anything else. There aren’t that many obvious revenue-raising measures going spare. Balls will not be happy if Osborne forces him to deploy one of them upfront and on benefit spending, more than two years before an election.

Ed Balls said Labour would oppose "an unfair hit on mid and lower income working families". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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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.