Ed Balls speaks at the Labour conference in 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls puts the Tories on the spot over tax cuts for the rich

Shadow chancellor challenges Osborne and Cameron over failure to rule out cutting top rate from 45p to 40p. 

Labour's summer offensive (contrasting with what one shadow minister describes as last year's "summer of silence") continues today with a speech by Ed Balls on the economy in the bellwether seat of Bedford. 

Balls will reveal new figures from the House of Commons Library showing that by 2015, average earnings will have fallen by the highest amount since the 1874-1880 parliament. In addition, based on current trends, this parliament will be the first since the 1920s in which real earnings have been lower at the end than at the beginning. It's a reminder that, however fast the economy grows, Labour will still be able to go into the general election answering Ronald Reagan's question - "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" - in the negative. "From a Conservative-led government that promised to make working people better off back in 2010, this is a dismal record of failure," Balls will say.

But the most notable political line is on tax. After the success that Labour enjoyed in attacking the coalition's abolition of the 50p tax rate ("the millionaire's tax cut") in 2012, Balls will warn that the Tories are prepared to do it all over again. 

"We know the Tories' real economic plan - it's to cut taxes at the top and hope that wealth will just trickle down," he will say. 

"Having already cut taxes for millionaires in this Parliament, they're champing at the bit to do it again if they win the election - cutting the top rate of tax for people earning over £150,000 again from 45p to 40p. Another tax cut worth £3 billion for the richest one per cent of our country.

"We know George Osborne wanted to cut it down to 40p in his omnishambles Budget two years ago. David Cameron won't rule out doing it. And Boris Johnson and the right are now demanding it. This is the real Tory agenda for a second term. The same old Tories standing up for the few, while everyone else is left behind. And it shows just how much is at stake next year."

There is a simple reason why Osborne and Cameron have conspicuously failed to rule out scrapping the 45p rate: they think it would be a good idea. But whatever economic justification they can offer for this stance (and there is no evidence that a tax rate of 45p, or, indeed, one of 50p is harmful to growth), it is terrible politics. As a recent YouGov poll showed, 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.

Osborne is often accused of being solely influenced by political calculations, but on this issue he is allowing ideology to trump all.

Update: In his speech, Balls again warned that the government's failure to increase housing supply meant there was now "a real risk that interest rates will rise prematurely" to rein in the market. 

Speaking in Bedford, where Harold Macmillan first declared in 1957 "you’ve never had it so good", he also said that while the Tory PM's words "may have resonated" in post-war Britain, nearly sixty years on, every time in Prime Minister’s Questions that David Cameron tries to tell the British people that they’ve never had it so good, I fear it just prompts disbelief that he can be so out of touch.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.