Labour and the 50p rate: principle or pragmatism?

While Miliband once said he would "keep the 50p rate permanently", Balls says he would "rather get tax rates down".

As Labour begins to offer greater detail on the fiscal stance it will adopt in 2015, the question of whether it would restore the 50p tax rate is becoming more insistent. On last night's Newsnight, Ed Balls gave his standard response that were Labour in power now it would reintroduce it, but that he was unwilling to make tax policy two years ahead of an election. Intriguingly, however, he added that "personally, I'd rather get tax rates down if I could, but I can't make that promise now on the top rate of tax".

Balls's suggestion that he is not wedded to the 50p rate as a point of principle contrasts with what Ed Miliband said in June 2010, when he suggested that the top rate was an important component of a fairer society

I would keep the 50p rate permanently. It's not just about reducing the deficit, it's about fairness in our society and that's why I'd keep the 50p tax rate, not just for a parliament.

Miliband has since generally adopted the line that Labour would bring back the 50p rate "if there was an election tomorrow", leaving himself with maximum flexibility for 2015, but I suspect that he continues to regard a more progressive tax system as crucial to meeting his aim of reducing inequality. Balls, however, takes a more pragmatic view. The difference in outlook is a good example of what one Labour figure had in mind when they told me that Balls "doesn't really buy all of this 'responsible capitalism' stuff". 

Ed Balls told Newsnight: "personally, I'd rather get tax rates down if I could, but I can't make that promise now".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.