Romney's taxes in the spotlight

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney finally admits to paying a lower tax rate than most of the popula

The big news from the campaign trail today is a number: Mitt Romney's "effective" tax rate. At an event in South Carolina yesterday, Mitt finally conceded (after weeks of probing) that he pays "probably closer to the 15 per cent rate than anything", putting him firmly in the 1 per cent, and firmly in the sights of people who want to change the tax system.

Mitt's rate is so low because most of his income is from capital gains, which is taxed more generously than other income. A Republican Congress cut the rate from 28 to 20 per cent in 1997, then to 15 per cent in 2001. Thus, the US has a fairly progressive employment tax system, where people pay more as they earn more, but a regressive effective one, where private equity windfalls and stock market profits get special treatment.

Warren Buffett, the legendary "Sage of Omaha", has famously called it iniquitous that he pays less tax, in percentage terms, than his secretary, or, as he wrote in the New York Times last year, the "other 20 people in our office" (whose rates range from 33 to 41 per cent). Barack Obama has tried to promote a "Buffett Rule" - a minimum tax rate for those earning more than $1 million a year. But both have gained little traction outside the progressive press, and the Occupy Wall Street protests. The question now is whether Romney's number will add any grist to the debate.

Commentators yesterday speculated on the timing of Romney's words. The conventional wisdom is that it is better for him to talk about his finances now, while he is doing well in the polls, and the real election is still months away. But it's also possible the admission will plant a seed that will grow and grow under careful cultivation from the Democrats, and sections of the media. Obama is already planning to make inequality a main focus of his rhetoric, hoping to channel some some of the OWS anger. An opponent who pays less tax than most of the population could be a perfect foil.

Ben Schiller is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.