Labour rejects claims it would outspend the Tories as "total rubbish"

A source tells the NS that the party has not decided whether to match Osborne's post-2015 spending limits and says it would be "irresponsible" to do otherwise.

Back in 1997, in a bid to assure the electorate of its economic credibility, Labour famously pledged to stick to the Tories' public spending limits for the first two years of the new parliament. The move meant public services were initially drained of resources (the plans were described by then-chancellor Ken Clarke as "eye-wateringly tight") but history has recorded it as a political success. 

As he seeks to burnish his own economic credentials, some in Labour have been urging Ed Miliband to repeat this trick and sign up to the coalition's post-2015 spending plans (a subject I explored in the NS back in January). Such a move, so the theory goes, would repel the Tories' "deficit denier" attacks and convince voters that the party can be trusted with the nation's purse strings again. 

To date, it is an option that Miliband and Ed Balls have notably refused to rule out. As chief economic adviser to Gordon Brown, Balls helped mastermind the original 1997 pledge and has already declared that his "starting point" is that Labour will "have to keep all these cuts", a step towards accepting Osborne’s baseline. When Harriet Harman told the Spectator in September that Labour would not match the Tories’ spending plans and abandon its "fundamental economic critique" of the coalition, she was forced to issue a retraction.

But today's Independent reports that there is now a "growing consensus" in the shadow cabinet in favour of rejecting Osborne's spending limits and outlining an alternative strategy. Instead of promising to match the Tories' planned pace of deficit reduction, the paper says the party will pledge to invest in priority areas such as housing. It's important to point out that this doesn't mean Labour won't impose cuts elsewhere, rather it means splitting the burden more equally between cuts and tax rises and reducing borrowing (which, owing to the failure of Osborne's plan, is forecast to be £108bn in 2014-15) at a rate the economy can bear. 

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have leapt gleefully on the story, with the Tory Treasury Twitter account declaring, "we now know that Labour will go into the election with a plan to borrow and spend more, putting up the deficit". George Osborne, who remains the Conservatives' chief electoral strategist, has long hoped to run his own version of the party's successful 1992 campaign, which accused Labour of planning a "tax bombshell" after Neil Kinnock and John Smith chose not to match John Major's spending plans. But could the Tories' joy could be premature? A Labour source described the Independent story to me as "total rubbish", adding:

They've taken some Fabian Society report out next week which says Labour should not match Tory spending plans post 2015 and spun it as the view of the leadership. As we've always said, we will not make our tax and spending commitments till the time of the election. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise, who knows where the economy and public finances will be in two months' time, let alone two years.

As in 1997, Labour is likely to wait until just a few months before the general election before announcing its decision. Balls and Miliband have learned from the mistakes of the Tories, who promised to match Labour's spending plans in 2007 only to abandon this pledge after the crash in 2008.

But the question remains: has Labour genuinely not made up its mind or has it merely chosen not to tell us yet? My guess is the former but it's likely that Miliband, a leader who thrives on defying conventional wisdom, is minded to reject Osborne's spending limits. A pledge to do otherwise (a trick straight out of the New Labour playbook) would run entirely counter to the post-Blairite spirit of his leadership. Embracing Tory levels of austerity would also deny the economy the stimulus it will badly need and split the left. The challenge facing Labour is finding a means of rejecting Osborne's plans while simultaneously convicing the electorate that it can be trusted not to "crash the car" again. 

Update: Ed Balls was on LBC radio this morning (a slot dubbed "Balls Calls") and described the Independent report as "simply wrong". He said: 

It is an exclusive but it is wrong I’m afraid Nick and you know, it is a report of a Fabian Society commission which comes out next week. The Fabian Society is a research society, it has been there for 100 years, affiliated with the Labour Party, they are coming up with some conclusions about spending. It is not Labour Party policy. It is not something that I’ve even discussed…

Balls added that it would be "totally irresponsible" for him "to come along on here or the Independent and tell you our tax and spending plans two years before the election".  

Again, however, it is notable that Balls has not ruled out promising to outspend the Tories. He has merely restated that Labour will not publicly announce its decision until closer to the election. As I wrote above, it is plausible that in private Labour takes the view that it should reject Osborne's spending limits. 

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.