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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5 things Labour has blamed for the Copeland by-election defeat

Other than Labour, of course. 

In the early hours of Friday morning, Labour activists in Copeland received a crushing blow, when they lost a long-held constituency to the Tories

As the news sank in, everyone from the leadership down began sharing their views on what went wrong. 

Some Labour MPs who had done the door knock rounds acknowledged voters felt the party was divided, and were confused about its leadership.

But others had more imaginative reasons for defeat:

1. Tony Blair

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Radio 4’s Today programme that: “I don’t think it’s about individuals”. But he then laid into Tony Blair, saying: “We can’t have a circumstance again where a week before the by-election a former leader of the party attacks the party itself.”

2. Marginal seats

In a flurry of tweets, shadow Justice secretary Richard Burgon wanted everyone to know that Copeland was a marginal seat and always had been since it was created in 1983.

Which might be true, but most commentators were rather more struck by the fact Labour MPs had managed to overcome that marginality and represent the area for eighty years. 

3. The nuclear industry

In response to the defeat, Corbyn loyalist Paul Flynn tweeted: “Copeland MP is pro-nuclear right winger. No change there.” He added that Copeland was a “unique pro-nuclear seat”. 

In fact, when The New Statesman visited Copeland, we found residents far more concerned about the jobs the nuclear industry provides than any evangelical fervour for splitting atoms.

4. The political establishment

Addressing journalists the day after the defeat, Corbyn said voters were “let down by the political establishment”. So let down, they voted for the party of government.

He also blamed the “corporate controlled media”. 

5. Brexit

Corbyn's erstwhile rival Owen Smith tweeted that the defeat was "more evidence of the electoral foolhardiness of Labour chasing Brexiteers down the rabbit hole". It's certainly the case that Brexit hasn't been kind to Labour's share of the vote in Remain-voting by-elections like Richmond. But more than 56 per cent of Cumbrians voted Leave, and in Copeland the percentage was the highest, at 62 per cent. That's an awful lot of Brexiteers not to chase...

I'm a mole, innit.