Clegg's wealth tax deserves a fair hearing

A wealth tax would be progressive and economically beneficial.

In his relaunch interview in today's Guardian, Nick Clegg calls for a new wealth tax, declaring that "if we want to remain cohesive and prosperous as a society" those of "very considerable" wealth should make an "extra contribution". To which Labour has replied: why did you vote to abolish the 50p tax rate, then? It's a reasonable debating point (the decision to scrap the 50p rate was both politically and fiscally foolish) but it's also rather disingenuous. As anyone who has read any of Clegg or Vince Cable's speeches will know, the Lib Dems have long argued that the burden of taxation should be shifted from income towards wealth (as, indeed, has the New Statesman). There is nothing inconsistent in Clegg calling for a wealth tax while also supporting the reduction in the 50p rate to 45p. You could argue that new taxes on wealth should complement, rather than replace, those on high incomes (and you'd be right), but this shouldn't blind the left to the merits of Clegg's intervention.

In Britain, wealth is concentrated in even fewer hands than income and represents a huge untapped source of government revenue. If taxes on income are to be reduced, as they must be (if one includes National Insurance, the effective starting rate is 32%), either through a significantly higher personal allowance or through a reduction in the basic rate, then taxes on wealth should be increased. As Clegg states:

In addition to our standing policy on things like the mansion tax, is there a time-limited contribution you can ask in some way or another from people of considerable wealth so they feel they are making a contribution to the national effort? What we are embarked on is in some senses a longer economic war rather than a short economic battle.

Taking their cue from John Stuart Mill, the Lib Dems rightly argue that the tax system should do more to reward merit, enterprise and innovation. As Cable put it in his essay for the New Statesman on reclaiming Keynes, taxation should be diverted away from "profitable, productive investment" and towards "unproductive asset accumulation". Wealth taxes are harder to avoid than those on income and, as a recent OECD report noted, they benefit the economy by shifting investment away from housing and into wealth-creating industries.

For now, Clegg's proposal raises more questions than it answers. Most obviously, at what rate and threshold would a wealth tax be set? But the details, we are promised, will be filled in by the time of the Lib Dem conference next month. What one can say with certainty is that, as Jonathan Portes puts it, it is both "good economics and fiscally progressive" to sharply increases taxes on the wealthy. By all means assail Clegg for his support for the government's disastrous economic strategy and its punitive welfare cuts, but don't ignore the fact that the most creative thinking on taxation is taking place in his party.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that those of "very considerable" wealth should make an "extra contribution". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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