The Times attacks “worryingly confused” Tory marriage tax plan

Is this a tax cut too far for the Conservatives?

Following three days when National Insurance dominated this economy-laden election campaign, attention now switches to the Tories' marriage tax allowance. Details of the plan have emerged this morning and boil down to this:

  • Four million married couples and those in civil partnerships would qualify for the tax break
  • An eligible couple would be able to transfer £750 in tax allowance from the higher-earning partner to the lower-earning partner
  • The maximum benefit will be £150 a year -- or just under £3 a week
  • The tax break would fall sharply in a marriage where the higher earner is on more than £42,500
  • It will be funded by a tax levied on wholesale lending in the City

The Times, for one, doesn't like it. Here are some choice cuts from this morning's leader:

The Tories propose to recognise marriage in the tax system, paid for by a levy on the banks. This is bad social policy advanced by an arbitrary means.

This is surely no time to be giving money away so that people can just carry on doing what they are already doing, namely being married.

In a long philosophical journey in opposition, the Tories appear to have alighted on moral authoritarianism advanced by economic interventionism. These are the wrong answers.

This policy is worryingly confused. At a time when the main message of the Conservative campaign is that there is no money, it is odd indeed to be offering handouts.

Remember, this is the delivery of a promise made by David Cameron when he was running for the leadership of the party five years ago. For one of the country's most influential -- and broadly politically non-aligned -- newspapers to be so vehemently opposed to a policy so closely associated with the party leader has to be a concern.

Meanwhile, over on the Next Left blog, Sunder Katwala argues that by trying to counter criticism that the tax break would be regressive, the Tories have landed themselves with a confused policy. Katwala notes:

The policy doesn't send a simple "pro-marriage signal" any more.

The core distinction is no longer between the married and the not married.

Instead, the policy now signals that some marriages are valued while others are not.

Some good news for the Conservatives comes in a Harris opinion poll for the Daily Mail. Asking a one-off question, the pollster found that 65 per cent of respondents believe the next government should support marriage by raising tax allowances for married couples, with 35 per cent disagreeing.

But as Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report notes, "It's one of those questions that depend a lot on how it's asked."

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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