Death and taxes

How will Labour respond to the coalition’s VAT rise?

Two things in life are inevitable, said Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes. The Conservatives campaigned against "Labour's death tax" and against "Labour's jobs tax". But Labour left it to the Lib Dems to campaign against the Tory VAT tax bombshell.

So how will Labour characterise the VAT rise that will bring an end to the New Year sales? They've got a little time to work it out, but it's likely that "death" will play a central role, as the tax rise is felt by everyone and Labour argues that the change is going to kill the recovery.

Ed Balls has a video on his website where he basically says, "I told you so." Last week he urged people to sign up to his campaign to stop the VAT tax rise -- a clever way to capture contact details for party members that he perhaps copied from Ed Miliband's campaign for a living wage and David Miliband's Movement for Change.

Apparently Balls argued that Labour should rule out a VAT increase before the last election, another argument he lost with Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, who didn't want to box themselves in. Balls has certainly made the most of it and, positioning himself well as an active and effective opponent of the coalition.

But if Balls didn't wanted to rule out a VAT increase, which taxes did he want a Labour government to raise? The official Labour position is that the deficit should be cut using a 2:1 ratio of spending cuts and tax rises -- that's 67 per cent cuts and 33 per cent tax rises.

In opposition, the Tories talked about using an 80:20 ratio and came clean in the Budget about how the 20 per cent of taxes are going to be raised. We have to wait for the spending review, after the conclusion of Labour's leadership election, to find out about the 80 per cent spending cuts.

There is, of course, zero political incentive for an opposition to spell out the alternative tax rises that it would have implemented. However, calculations by Demos show how that the government could have used a 67:33 ratio and raised the necessary £17bn without raising VAT.

Think tanks don't have to get elected, but the package of increases in income tax, CGT on primary residences and taxing carbon is a reasonable, realistic and realpolitik alternative.

Despite being the self-proclaimed "turn-the-page candidate", Diane Abbott has so far had nothing to say about the opportunity to reform and restructure our tax system. If not now, when? Andy Burham says Labour got intoxicated by big business but hasn't developed that into a policy position on tax. What does he think of the cut in corporation tax, for example?

David Miliband's conversion to the Lib Dem mansion tax on houses worth £2m and Ed Miliband's moral argument for keeping the 50p top rate of income tax for good are the only tangible interventions that any of the candidates have made into tax-rise territory. But, if the five are to preserve their own credibility and the integrity of Labour's debate, these are unlikely to be the last.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.