David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby before the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband halts Cameron's advance on the economy

The Labour leader won a rare victory on the Tories' strongest territory. 

The fallout from the Autumn Statement and the focus on the cuts the Tories would make means that Labour is feeling better about its position on the economy than it has done for months. Voter anxiety about the threat to public services, they believe, could turn the election in their favour. In a sign of this new confidence, Ed Miliband led on the issue (on which the Conservatives have long held the advantage) at the final PMQs of the year. Noting that it was the Office for Budget Responsibility that first drew attention to the fact that public spending would fall to its lowest level since the 1930s under George Osborne's plans, he quipped: "Why does he believe the OBR has joined the BBC in a conspiracy against the Conservative Party?" Having been criticised in the past by Labour MPs for dropping messages too quickly, Miliband is determined to keep pushing the "1930s" line. 

Cameron replied that in real-terms public spending would merely fall to the same level as in 2002-03, but Miliband had a neat riposte: "He's spent four years saying we spent too much. Now he's saying we spent too little." The PM later turned to the deficit and the fact that Labour's plans would allow greater borrowing than the Conservatives'. But Ed Balls's pledge to cut the deficit every year and the Tories' promise of £7bn of unfunded tax cuts means that Miliband is better-armed than in the past. As well as creating a sense of risk around public services, Labour is now able to point to the danger of another VAT rise: something Cameron notably refused to rule out today. The PM was able to turn the leaked Labour strategy document on immigration to his advantage, highlighting its reference to the Conservatives' 17-point lead on managing the economy. But Miliband remained unruffled. The Labour leader never quite landed a knock-out blow. Yet given that the ecnomy is traditionally the Tories' strongest suit, and today's positive employment and earnings figures, Miliband will be content with a points victory. 

The two men's closing exchange neatly framed the battle to come: Miliband charged the Tories with a plan not for "balancing the books" but for "slashing the state". Cameron declared: "They can't talk about the deficit because it's fallen, they can't talk about growth because it's rising, they can't talk about jobs because we're increasing them." Miliband's aim is to persuade voters that the threat to public services is too great to award the Tories another term in government. Cameron's is to persuade them that the threat to growth and jobs is too great to gamble on an untested opposition. The election will likely turn on which scenario voters fear more. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.