PMQs review: Miliband goes back on the attack - and wins

The Labour leader broke with his new sober style and hammered Cameron over his refusal to rule out cutting the top tax rate again.

After three weeks, Ed Miliband's "reasonable" approach to PMQs is officially over. With the economy rising and Labour's poll lead falling, Miliband went back on the attack today - and won.

He started with a sober question on Syrian refugees, noting that he had pressed Cameron to reverse the government's stance at last week's session, but quickly shifted gears into a more offensive mode. After Labour's announcement that it would reintroduce the 50p tax rate, he dug out a Cameron quote from 2009 in which he said "showing that we’re all in this together means showing the rich will pay their share, which is why the 50p tax rate will have to stay". Cameron responded by insisting that the richest are paying more in tax and denounced Labour as "an anti-business, anti-growth, anti-jobs party" (a line you can expect to hear again). But Miliband had plenty of ammunition left. He declared that "what we have is a policy with the overwhelming support of the most important people of all – the people of Britain" (the most recent polls show more than 60 per cent support the 50p tax rate with only around 20 per cent opposed) and challenged Cameron to rule out cutting the top rate from 45p to 40p.

To this, Cameron would only reply that his "priority" was to cut tax rates for the lowest-paid before a wonderful moment of mirth when he remarked "while we’re in the business of who has said interesting things in recent days, let me ask him this...", and then failed to find the quote he was looking for. After the Speaker helpfully interjected, to roars of laughter from the Labour benches, Cameron eventually found his place but his subsequent attack - on Ed Balls's refusal to say that public spending was too high before the crash - was deprived of much of its force.

Miliband used his final two questions to again press Cameron on the top tax rate but only elicited the same response: that the government's "priority" was to help the low-paid (in other words, we might cut taxes for high earners later). By refusing to rule out reducing the 45p rate, Cameron and George Osborne (who did the same at Treasury questions yesterday) are handing Labour an election attack line on a plate.

Not only will Labour be able to remind voters that the Tories cut taxes for the highest 1 per cent of earners, it will be able to warn them that they're prepared to do the same again. Whether or not this is good economics (and there is no evidence that a 50p rate would genuinely damage growth), it is terrible politics. As a YouGov poll reminded us yesterday, the public overwhelmingly support the 50p rate, with 61 per cent in favour and just 26 per cent opposed. By 45 per cent to 19 per cent, they believe it will help the economic recovery rather than damage it, and, by 50 per cent to 29 per cent, that it will raise additional revenue.

Miliband ended:

The whole country will have heard he had three opportunities to answer and he could not give us a straight answer… After four years of this government, people are worse off and this is a PM who’s already given those at the top, millionaires, a hundred thousand pound tax cut and he wants to give them another one. He can only govern for the few, he can never govern for the many.

Today, at least, attack was the best form of defence.

Ed Miliband delivering his speech on banking reform earlier this month at the University of London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.