What can Iceland teach us about a wealth tax?

The country instituted an emergency tax for three years to sort out its problems. Should we?

Iceland’s remarkable recovery can serve as a lesson to the UK.

Having recently paid back its IMF loan quicker than was predicted, Iceland's unorthodox reaction to the crisis has been hailed by economists, policy-makers and the IMF itself. In addition to letting its financial system fail, the country introduced capital controls (which have been met with some skepticism as they arguably prevent foreign direct investment and therefore stunt growth) and leveraged its fiscal policy to pay off debt whilst sustaining consumption. It is this last point the UK should pay heed to, particularly as Clegg declares his support for a wealth tax.

The general theme of Iceland’s 2010 tax reform (pdf) is one of increasing tax revenue whilst offsetting the burden for lower income individuals. For instance, while fuel taxes and VAT were increased, the revenue was partially re-channeled towards public transportation and bottom-quartile households compensated for higher food, heating, and transport costs. Furthermore, in an effort to raise income without affecting consumption, the government implemented an emergency wealth tax rate for the period of 2010-2013. As of January 2011, one year after introduction, the tax rate is 1.5 per cent of net capital for single individuals with more than ISK 75,000,000 (£390,000) or 100,000,000 (£519,000) for married couples. By taxing the top 2.2 per cent of the population, the Icelandic government was able to raise 0.3 per cent of GDP in revenue every year.

However, an IMF report on the country's reform argues that the wealth tax should be abandoned as capital controls ease. Because the tax is recurring, the only thing that is stopping the wealthy from offshoring capital is the simple fact that they’re not allowed to. Therefore, IMF economists argue that the revenue from the wealth tax should be replaced by a less mobile base (i.e. real estate and high income). This does not, however, discredit the Icelandic wealth tax as a possibility in the UK; it just means that, as suggested by German scholars, it should be a one-off levy. (For an in-depth assessment of Clegg’s wealth tax go here)

Meanwhile, the biggest lesson the UK can learn from Iceland is that its recovery was at least partially fuelled by the government's struggle against depressed consumption.

Bloomberg's Omar Valdimarsson writes:

Iceland’s growth “is driven by private consumption, investment has picked up strongly and even though, when you look at net exports, those have a negative contribution to growth, it is mainly because imports have been strong, reflecting strong consumption and an increase in income and the healthy expectations of households,” Zakharova said. “Still, exports have been increasing very strongly. Last year was a banner year for tourism. These are all really positive things.”

A handful of Icelandic banknotes are withdrawn from an ATM. Photograph: Getty Images
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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.