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 Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.