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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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