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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.