Forget VAT -- why did they rule out a rise in income tax?

New Labour is not dead. It lives. Shame.

Who says "New Labour" is dead? Gordon Brown used the phrase seven times in his speech this morning in Birmingham, where he launched the party's general election manifesto.

The papers speculated on the Blairite tone of the document ahead of its publication -- including the Times, which predicted that the former leader's legacy would "flavour almost every page of Labour's manifesto".

And, lo and behold, the Ed Miliband-drafted document is indeed sprinkled with copious references to so-called public-service reform, from "personalised" welfare to "more responsive" police to "direct control" over services.

But it is on taxation that the Labour manifesto sounds so frustratingly conservative, cautious and, yes, Blairite. "We will not raise the basic, higher and new top rates of tax in the next parliament," it proudly proclaims, echoing the 1997, 2001 and 2005 pledges.

Hmm. Why not?

Isn't the Budget deficit £167bn? And doesn't the first of the manifesto's "50 steps to a future fair for all" pledge to employ "fair taxes" to help "halve the deficit by 2014"? Is there a fairer tax than income tax?

If there is, it ain't VAT -- which, in the words of the leading tax accountant Richard Murphy, "is intently regressive -- meaning that the burden of the tax falls much more heavily on low-earnings households than it does on those with higher income".

Modern social democracy has to revolve around progressive, not regressive, taxation. Income tax is at the heart of progressive taxation, but you might not have guessed it from Labour's period in office. For 12 years, the government refused to touch the top rate of tax -- until, that is, the financial crisis and ballooning national debt forced Alistair Darling to introduce a new top-rate tax of 50p on the 300,000 people who earn in excess of £150,000 per annum. And as I wrote back in October, in the magazine:

It is conveniently forgotten that Thatcher only cut the top rate of tax, from 60 per cent to the current 40 per cent, in 1988; for nine of her 11 years in power, the darling of the Tory right, the Mother Thatcherite, presided over a higher top rate of tax than the one now being introduced by the "socialist" Brown.

In fact, the basic rate was cut, not raised, during Labour's 13-year period in office to its current (low) level of 20p, a move paid for by the abolition of the 10p tax band on low earners -- which is thought to have contributed to the party's disastrous by-election defeat in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.

So I'm disappointed to see Brown, Darling, Miliband et al pledging not to deviate from the old, outdated and cautious New Labour orthodoxy on income tax, while refusing to rule out a rise in regressive VAT. Have they learned nothing? The 50p top-rate tax has been hugely popular with voters; the abolition of the 10p rate has been unpopular and electorally damaging.

Times have changed. This is not the Seventies, nor even the Eighties. In the wake of the worst financial crisis in living memory, caused by bonus-hungry bankers and financiers, the public, in effect, wants the pips to squeak. Haunted by its demons and deferring to a right-wing media echo chamber, Labour -- or, should I say, "New Labour" -- has missed an open goal.

 

UPDATE: On the subject of progressive taxation, I forgot to add that the Lib Dems today launched a blistering but slightly disingenuous attack on Labour's "unfair" tax record, publishing an analysis of Treasury figures which shows that the amount of tax paid by the poorest has gone up over the past 13 years.

The Fabians' Sunder Katwala has issued a rejoinder here. And the economists Stuart Adam and Mike Brewer, from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have responded thus:

The Liberal Democrats have, once again, claimed that the poor pay more of their income in tax than the rich, and that this gap has got larger under Labour. But, by ignoring the fact that the poor get most of this income from the state in benefit and tax credit payments, and by overstating the extent to which indirect taxes are paid by the poor, this comparison is meaningless at best and misleading at worst.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.