Magpie politics will be the death of Labour

Why the party can't win the argument over inheritance tax

In recent weeks Labour ministers have stepped up attacks on the Conservatives over their grossly regressive pledge to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m. This policy-based critique was, I thought, an improvement on the claim that David Cameron was a "vacuous" politician. But new figures out today, showing that under Labour the number of families paying inheritance tax has fallen to the lowest since records began, remind us why this approach so often flounders.

Alistair Darling's "magpie" pre-Budget report, which increased the threshold to £600,000 (and to £700,000 by 2010) after George Osborne stole the headlines with his promise to raise the threshold to £1m, remains one of the most shameful moments of Gordon Brown's tenure.

Labour has failed to win the political argument over inheritance tax because its disagreements with the Conservatives are differences of degree rather than kind. Ministers have focused on the negative point that the Tories' plan would benefit the 3,000 richest estates in the country and have refused to make either the egalitarian or the meritocratic case for inheritance tax.

I used to be one of those who believed that Cameron's embrace of social liberalism proved that Labour had unambiguously shifted the political consensus to the left. In truth, much Conservative policy reflects Labour's failures, not its successes. It is because Labour has been insufficiently radical that the Tories have been able to masquerade as progressive even while pledging to cut taxes for millionaires.

Labour cannot successfully rebut Cameron's claim that the Tories are the party of the poor after presiding over the highest level of inequality in 40 years. It cannot credibly challenge the punitive Conservative public-sector pay freeze after rushing out news of its own freeze the night before Osborne's speech. It cannot ridicule the Tories' obsessive anti-statism after fetishising the market for years in the pre-crash world.

Brown must learn that pandering to the right does not neutralise the Conservatives -- it puts them in power.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.