Why Balls is right to explore a wealth tax

Wealth taxes are fairer than those on income and they stimulate growth.

So far, beyond a pledge to restore the 50p tax rate, we've heard surprisingly little from Labour on the future of the tax system. But that changes with Ed Balls's interview in today's Independent. Whilst dismissing the wealth tax proposed by Nick Clegg as "not in the real world", he reveals that Labour is considering adopting a version of Vince Cable's mansion tax. "The likes of a mansion tax need to be on the table to be looked at," Balls tells the paper. He adds that he wants to begin "discussions" with the Business Secretary as soon as possible.

The person thinking seriously about this was not Nick Clegg but Vince Cable. I feel for Vince and the extent of his frustration [with the Coalition]…but if he wants to channel those frustrations into discussions about how we can achieve growth and jobs in the future I'll start discussions with him tomorrow.

Ball's announcement is an encouraging one. Here at the NS, we've long argued that the burden of taxation should be shifted from income towards wealth and assets (see NS editor Jason Cowley's 2010 cover story on the subject). Wealth taxes are harder to avoid than those on income (even the most determined tax avoider cannot move his or her mansion to Geneva), are progressive (wealth is even more unequally distributed than income), and benefit the economy by shifting investment away from unproductive assets and towards wealth-creating industries. For the psephologically minded, it's also worth noting that high-end property taxes are popular. A Sunday Times/YouGov poll found that 63 per cent of the public (including 56 per cent of Tories) support a mansion tax, with just 27 per cent opposed.

But, like Ed Miliband in his interview in this week's New Statesman, Balls is also clear that Labour cannot rely solely on the tax system to reduce inequality. The shadow chancellor joins Miliband in referencing the zeitgeisty theme of "predistribution" - the belief that state, rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system, should act to ensure they do not arise in the first place.

As I wrote in my blog on the subject last night, Balls and Miliband advance two main arguments for this shift of emphasis. Firstly, that the failure of the last Labour government to reduce inequality means that while redistribution is necessary (and will remain so) it is not sufficient, and secondly, that the fiscal constraints a Labour administration would face (based on current forecasts, it would inherit a deficit of £96.1bn or 5.8% of GDP) mean that it will be not able to increase tax credits (the last Labour government's primary redistributive instrument) in the manner that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did.

As I note: "The great strength of predistribution is that it does not cost the state a penny to pursue. Rather than relying on taxation to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, Labour will harness the instruments of legislation and regulation. Rail companies, for instance, would be barred from raising fares by more than 1% above inflation."

Expect to hear lots more on the subject when Balls and Miliband address today's Policy Network conference at the London Stock Exchange.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said "the likes of a mansion tax need to be on the table".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage