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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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