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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.