Labour MP and London mayoral challenger David Lammy. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Lammy stands firm on opposition to mansion tax despite Balls concessions

The Labour London mayoral hopeful wants higher tax bands introduced by local councils. 

Against expectations, the biggest policy disagreement of last month's Labour conference was over the party's plan to introduce a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m. Most of Labour's prospective London mayoral candidates (David Lammy, Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott, Margaret Hodge), along with several party donors, criticised the idea, with only Sadiq Khan backing the party line. 

Ed Balls's piece in today's Evening Standard is aimed at resolving their concerns. After previously announcing that the threshold for the tax would be increased in line with house prices, rather than overall inflation, and that those who are asset rich but income poor (and who may struggle to afford the tax) would be offered protection, Balls has gone further today. He has announced that:

1. The threshold for the tax will be raised in line with house price rises over £2m, rather than the average increase. This will ensure that the number of properties paying the tax does not rise. 

2. Those on incomes below £42,000 (who do not pay the 40p rate of tax) will be "guaranteed" the right to defer the charge until the property changes hands. 

3. A household in the lowest proposed band (£2m-£3m) will only pay an extra £250 per month - the same as the average top band of council tax. Balls added that he would look at asking overseas owners of second homes in the UK to make "a larger contribution". 

But despite these clarifications, Labour's mayoral hopefuls retain concerns over the policy. A spokesman for David Lammy, the only officially declared candidate (with the exception of transport expert Christian Wolmar), told me that while he "welcomed" the changes announced by Balls, he felt it remained "a tax on London". Rather than a Treasury-imposed mansion tax, he would like the policy to be introduced by local councils in the form of higher bands, ensuring that the capital (which accounts for 86 per cent of the properties that would be affected) gets to keep the majority of the revenue raised. "If London has to pay more, London should get to keep more," a source said. Labour has pledged to use the £1.2bn it expects to raise from the tax to fund higher NHS spending. 

Meanwhile, Tessa Jowell also said that she "welcomed" Balls's announcement but that she remained concerned about the implementation of the policy and disliked the "mansion tax" label. 

She said: 

The fact that he has made two things clear, first the banding of liability, and the second that if you are a basic rate taxpayer then any liability is deferred until the property changes hands, is a welcome recognition of the anxiety that has been caused to thousands of people, some of whom I represent, who, by and large, are elderly and are living on pensions.

But let's stop calling it a 'mansion tax', these are not mansions, these are family homes that have accured in value. When people think of mansions they think of great big Scottish estates, or Cotswold estates, or whatever, this is a feature of the London housing market. These are people who do not think of their home as this fast appreciating capital estate but as their family home. They're the kind of people who open their house to the Labour Party, where we can have our garden party in the summer, or whenever's there's a space needed for something in the community, they tend to be the people who offer their houses for that. It's this sense of settlement in constituences like mine, which is so incredibly important. The reason I've been speaking out against this is that I did not want a situation to arise where these people felt helpless and anxious in ways that meant the only option open to them was to sell their homes.

I hope that Ed Balls's piece will reassure them. I think, however, this is going to be complicated to implement, it will be important that when the detailed implementation plan is published that there is plenty of discretion to deal with the really difficult cases. 

When I asked whether she now supported the policy, she told me: 

I don't think it's over yet. I think that what Ed has set out today is a welcome outline but as with all of these policies the test is in the implementation. I look forward to talking further with him about how this is implemented in order to prevent bad cases discrediting what is a policy intended to increase fairness. 

Update: Diane Abbott, another likely mayoral candidate, has tweeted: "My view on the mansion tax. Good idea in principle. But you cannot escape the fact that it is a tax on London."

Update 2: Margaret Hodge told me: "I think the detail Ed Balls has set out today is a step in the right direction, although I do have reservations about a mansion tax. Of course it cannot be right that you pay the same amount of council tax on a property worth £320,000 as one worth £3m. The challenge is finding a solution that is as fair and as effective as possible."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser