Ed Balls and Ed Miliband on stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls refuses to deny plan to use mansion tax to "save NHS"

Ed Miliband is expected to announce the policy in his conference speech tomorrow. 

Ahead of Ed Miliband's speech tomorrow, the BBC's Nick Robinson is reporting that he will pledge to use Labour's proposed mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m to increase NHS spending. Labour sources have described this as "speculation", which isn't a denial, and at a fringe event this evening, Ed Balls refused to reject the story. He told NS columnist and Huffington Post political director Mehdi Hasan that "all the things I wanted to announce in my speech today I did" (leaving the path clear for Miliband) and did not commit to using the revenue it would raise for deficit reduction. 

Labour originally pledged to use a mansion tax to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate, but in his speech today, Balls confirmed that this would now be achieved through the abolition of the Married Couple's Tax Allowance introduced by the coalition. On a mansion tax, he said: 

And we will levy a tax on the highest value properties - a mansion tax on houses worth over £2 million.

But we will do it in a fair, sensible and proportionate way. Raising the limit each year in line with average rises in house prices. Putting in place protections for those who are asset rich but cash poor. And ensuring those with properties worth tens of millions of pounds make a significantly bigger contribution than those in houses just above the limit.

Because how can it be right that the billionaire overseas buyer this year of a £140 million penthouse in Westminster will pay just £26 a week in property tax — the same as the average-value property in that area?

On the NHS, he said: "Conference, we saved our National Health Service from the Tories.

"And next year, after just five years of David Cameron – with waiting times rising, fewer nurses and a crisis in A&E - we will have to save the NHS from the Tories once again. And we will do what it takes." 

Using the revenue that a mansion tax and a super-mansion tax (on properties worth tens of millions) would raise gets Labour round the problem of how to increase NHS spending without a rise in general taxation, which the party regards as unfeasible at a time of falling living standards. 

It would also be a politically potent act of redistribution, with a populist (and popular) tax on the wealthy used to safeguard Britain's most cherished public institution. David Cameron vetoed the introduction of a mansion tax by the coalition on the grounds that "our donors would never put up with it". Expect Miliband to make much of how the PM "stands up for the wrong people" when he speaks tomorrow. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour will soon be forced to make clear its stance on Brexit

The Great Repeal Bill will force the party to make a choice on who has the final say on a deal withg Europe.

A Party Manifesto has many functions. But rarely is it called upon to paper over the cracks between a party and its supporters. But Labour’s was – between its Eurosceptic leadership and its pro-EU support base. Bad news for those who prefer their political parties to face at any given moment in only one direction. But a forthcoming parliamentary vote will force the party to make its position clear.

The piece of legislation that makes us members of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. “Very soon” – says the House of Commons Library – we will see a Repeal Bill that will, according to the Queen’s Speech, “repeal the European Communities Act.” It will be repealed, says the White Paper for the Repeal Bill, “on the day we leave the EU.”

It will contain a clause stating that the bit of the bill that repeals the European Communities Act will come into force on a date of the Prime Minister's choosing. But MPs will have to choose whether to vote for that clause. And this is where Labour’s dilemma comes into play.

In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May said:

“I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”

Later that day David Davis clarified May’s position, saying, of a vote against the final deal:

“The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.” 

So. The choice the Tories will give to Parliament is between accepting whatever deal is negotiated or leaving without a deal. Not a meaningful choice at all given that (as even Hammond now accepts): “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.”

But what about Labour’s position? Labour’s Manifesto says:

“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option.”

So, it has taken that option off the table. But it also says:

“A Labour approach to Brexit also means legislating to guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (my emphasis).”

Most Brexit commentators would read that phrase – a meaningful vote – as drawing an implicit contrast with the meaningless vote offered by Theresa May at Lancaster House. They read it, in other words, as a vote between accepting the final deal or remaining in the EU.

But even were they wrong, the consequence of Labour taking “no deal” off the table is that there are only two options: leaving on the terms of the deal or remaining. Labour’s Manifesto explicitly guarantees that choice to Parliament. And guarantees it at a time when the final deal is known.

But here’s the thing. If Parliament chooses to allow Theresa May to repeal the European Communities Act when she wants, Parliament is depriving itself of a choice when the result of the deal is known. It is depriving itself of the vote Labour’s Manifesto promises. And not only that - by handing over to the Prime Minister the decision whether to repeal the European Communities Act, Parliament is voluntarily depriving itself of the power to supervise the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May will be able to repeat the Act whatever the outcome of those negotiations. She won’t be accountable to Parliament for the result of her negotiations – and so Parliament will have deprived itself of the ability to control them. A weakened Prime Minister, without a mandate, will have taken back control. But our elected Parliament will not.

If Labour wants to make good on its manifesto promise, if Labour wants to control the shape of Brexit, it must vote against that provision of the Repeal Bill.

That doesn’t put Labour in the position of ignoring the referendum vote. There will be ample time, from October next year when the final deal is known, for Labour to look at the Final Deal and have a meaningful vote on it.

But if Labour supports the Repeal Bill it will be breaching a clear manifesto promise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

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