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.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.