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Labour and Tories in polls skirmish

Labour and the Tories have traded blows as battle commenced in earnest ahead of May's general election, with Ed Miliband billing the vote as a "once in a generation" chance to rebuild the country and George Osborne warning that a victory for the Opposition would lead to economic chaos.

The Chancellor said figures produced by Treasury officials showed Labour had made £20.7 billion in unfunded spending commitments for 2015/16, requiring an extra £1,200 of public borrowing for every working household.

But Labour rejected the figures in the "dodgy" dossier and warned there was a "real fear" about the impact of the scale of spending cuts planned by the Tories on public services, including the NHS.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls hastily produced his own 36-page dossier containing a line-by-line analysis of the Tory claims, which he said showed Labour had made "no unfunded spending or tax commitments". Mr Osborne had inadvertently highlighted the "robust discipline" adopted by Labour on spending, he said.

Mr Balls confirmed that Labour would stick to spending budgets for 2015/16 inherited from the coalition and will make no new resources available for public sector pay rises that year.

Many of the Tory claims were based on ideas - like a £477 million-a-year ban on food waste from landfill or an expansion of university technical colleges costing £1.4 billion - which were not Labour policy, while others rested on incorrect assumptions or related to schemes which were fully funded, he said.

In what was billed as the formal launch of a four-month battle to win power at Westminster at the ballot box in May, Mr Miliband said working people were on course to end up worse off at the end of a government than before for the first time since the 1920s.

The Labour leader told a rally in Salford that his party offered "hope not falsehoods" as he dismissed the Tory claims about unfunded spending commitments.

Labour would make cuts to public spending, he said, but deal with the deficit "responsibly" - including through higher taxes on the wealthiest - and had made no promises funded by additional borrowing,

Responding to the threat from Ukip, he insisted that exiting the European Union would be a "dramatic mistake" for the UK and promised "fair rules" on immigration.

"This is nothing less than a once-in-a-generation fight about who our country works for," said the Labour leader.

"It is a choice between a Tory plan where only a few at the top can succeed and our public services are threatened. Or a Labour plan that puts working people first, deals with the deficit and protects our NHS."

Mr Miliband rejected the suggestion that he was "scaremongering" over the NHS, following a question from the BBC's Norman Smith, who was loudly heckled by activists.

The Labour leader said: "I think there is real fear about the fact that we transformed the NHS in government, it's already gone backwards. If you are proposing as a party to go back to 1930s levels of public spending as a share of national income ... then I think there is real fear about what that means for the NHS and other vital public services."

But the Chancellor, who lined up with Cabinet colleagues including William Hague and Theresa May to launch his attack on Labour's economic credibility, said only the Conservative plan would safeguard public services.

"You cannot have a strong NHS, good schools, proper law and order without a strong economy," the Chancellor said.

Speaking at a Westminster press conference, Mr Osborne said: "The evidence produced today shows the Labour Party have not demonstrated the fiscal discipline or economic competence that earns an opposition the credibility to form a government.

"The evidence shows they are a risk to economic recovery.

"So the British people have a clear choice at the next election - continue on the road to a stronger economy with a competent Conservative team that have a long-term plan, or choose the chaos of over £20 billion of unfunded spending promises, higher taxes and more borrowing offered by the alternatives which would take us back to the economic mess Britain was in five years ago.

"Competence or chaos. That is the choice. Let's not throw it all away, let's work through the plan."

Commons Leader Mr Hague warned that a Labour government would mean higher taxes and mortgage rates, while the Home Secretary accused the Opposition of having nearly £1 billion of unfunded commitments across the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice in 2015/16.

The claims made in the Cost Analysis Of Labour Party Policy report quickly came under intense scrutiny after it emerged that some of the figures were based on a presumption that where Labour had criticised a Government policy, it would reverse it.

Deriding the line-up of Cabinet ministers as a "bizarre Politburo-style press conference", Mr Balls said: "This dodgy Tory dossier is riddled with untruths and errors on every page."

But Mr Osborne insisted: "We have been very clear that the commitments we used are ones which are either in Labour policy documents or party conferences."

The prospect of neither of the two main parties securing an outright majority in May has led to speculation about possible coalition deals after the election.

Mr Miliband said such an outcome was "best to be avoided" and he was focused on achieving an outright majority.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg hopes to play kingmaker again and warned against deals involving some of the smaller parties at Westminster.

"Only the Liberal Democrats can keep the government in the centre ground and stop the two old parties veering off to the extremes of left and right," he said.

With the SNP predicted to take a large number of seats in Scotland and Ukip hoping to increase its Commons presence, it is no longer clear that the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power as before.

But Mr Clegg said his was the only party which would share power in the national interest.

"Just imagine a Labour minority government propped up by the SNP or a Tory minority propped up by Ukip.

"Or either party constantly having to go on bended knee to a ragtag mob of nationalists, unionists, Greens and Respect MPs to beg for votes. It would be mayhem as everyone scrambles around for a bargain like the first day of the January sales."

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