Ed Balls is right. As he wrote on Thursday, an increase in VAT would be unfair to the poorest and damaging to jobs and the economy, and the coalition will be making a big mistake if George Osborne’s budget includes such an increase.
Balls has said, in an email to Labour Party members, that “Raising VAT is hugely unfair. The VAT rise will hit the poorest households harder than the richest and will hit pensioner couples and ordinary families hardest of all. It is simply not right.” His parliamentary question, tabled ahead of the Budget, asking for the distributional impact of a VAT rise is a smart political move which gets to the very heart of why VAT is wrong, and his stance on this issue has helped to set him aside from the other candidates in the Labour leadership contest.
But does he honestly think that if his great mentor, Gordon Brown had won the General Election Labour would not have increased VAT? Ever since 1992 Labour have been terrified of increasing the headline rate of Income Tax – clearly the fairest way of raising revenue – and all the evasions during the election campaign clearly pointed to a VAT hike as their preferred tool for dealing with part of the deficit. Yes, Alistair Darling – rightly – increased the top rate to 50% in his 2009 Budget, but this can clearly be seen as the act of a dying government which had suddenly found a lost reserve of courage. It certainly wasn’t a typical example of the New Labour approach to fiscal policy.
Balls’ posturing on VAT is of course naked opportunism, designed to bolster his bid for the Labour leadership, and I can’t blame him for that. The party’s leadership contest has yet to burst into life and hasn’t come anywhere close to engaging the wider public. Perhaps Balls has found an issue which can resonate with many who are sceptical at best about Osborne’s “we’re all in this together” nonsense.
None of that changes the fact that VAT is a thoroughly regressive tax and that it will be a particularly appalling day for the coalition (and in particular the Lib Dems) if Osborne is allowed to push through a hike.
But had Labour pulled off the impossible and won the General Election they would certainly have increased VAT – no question about it. As Balls himself admits, all of their campaign rhetoric pointed in this direction. For him to claim now that there would have been any other outcome demonstrates that he is either plainly dishonest or deeply delusional.