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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK

Parties shiver over tax

Mark Mardell

Labour hope that Monday's exchanges are a classic case of Conservative generals fighting not the last war, but the one before that.

Old gentleman strategists sitting in the club reliving victories past, chortling to each other that tax always does for Labour - with all the certainty of First World War top brass predicting the enemy lines, so firm so far, will fall when the cavalry charges.


" Monday saw the first solo performance at a news conference, and the cheesiest prop so far "
Labour are confident their more up to date weapons will mow down the charge, but are still ultra cautious about the damage that flashing sabres and flying hooves can do.

Monday saw the first solo performance at a news conference, and the cheesiest prop so far.

Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling strode onto stage with a blue box with big white letters spelling out: Tory Boom and Bust Budget.

In the background the sound system abandoned Labour's official campaign theme tune by the Lighthouse Family for a day and had Rod Stewart singing "The first cut is the deepest".

Amateur dramatics

Mr Darling pretended he was a Tory chancellor delivering the party's first budget.

But none of the questions played along with this rather amateur dramatics.

Instead what drama there was focused on Labour's plans for National Insurance (NI).


" National Insurance sends shivers through politicians "
Would Labour in effect put it up for higher earners?

This strange little, or not so little, tax sends shivers through politicians.

For Conservatives shivers of delight : it was a falling out over NI between John Smith and Neil Kinnock that was the beginning of the end for the Labour campaign in 1992.

Shivers of fear for Labour who saw their hopes of winning that election slip away as the Conservatives crudely but effectively announced Labour's plans for a tax "bombshell." National Insurance was a crucial component of that warhead.

Alistair Darling found a thousand and one formulas for telling us he wasn't going to tell us what would happen to this tax.

In a sense Labour can't win this narrow argument and could well be damaged because its clear they are not exactly being plain and straight.

Brown boxes clever

It is why the chancellor was never keen on trumpeting the promise not to put up income tax this time round.

If you promise not to put up income tax what about VAT, what about National Insurance and what about petrol tax?

No chancellor or government is going to box themselves in with no room to raise money which is why William Hague at the Conservative news conference deftly dodged my suggestion that he should promise not to put up any tax for the lifetime of the next parliament.

Labour think the national mood has changed since 1992 and again since 1997 but the Conservatives have failed to notice.

They point out that if there is a feeling of dissatisfaction with this government, it is because there aren't enough police, hospitals aren't up to scratch, schools could do with more books and more teachers.

They talk of the woman who harangued Mr Blair. She was demanding more money for the NHS, not bigger tax cuts for herself.

She was never quoted as saying: "If only that nice Mr Hague was running the health service it would all be so different".

Moody voters?

To an extent Labour are right about the public mood and the difficulty the Conservative campaign faces.

The biggest concern of voters seems to be the state of public services and in essence the Conservatives are saying they don't need any extra money just their magic touch.


" No chancellor or government is going to box themselves in with no room to raise money "
To get away with that sort of thing you need to be as voter friendly and as trusted as Labour was in 1997.

But the appeal of tax cuts is imponderable. People don't tell opinion polls that they want tax cuts above anything else, but they may feel that.

The greatest upset this government faced was over fuel tax, and it was never clear what choice people would make if they had had to plump for either current services or lower tax.

Conservatives are hoping that while the weapons of war may change, human nature does not.



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