Will the coalition keep squeezing the middle?

Nick Clegg hints at further middle-class tax rises to fund income-tax pledge.

At the end of another week that's seen the coalition accused of "squeezing the middle", Nick Clegg attempted to mount a defence of the government's tax plans on the Today programme this morning.

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted on Monday, roughly 750,000 people will become higher-rate taxpayers as a result of the coalition's decision to reduce the threshold for the 40 per cent band from £37,401 to £35,001. In response, Clegg rightly pointed out that many will pay a higher rate of tax on a "very, very small proportion of their earnings". But this ignores the fact that they will now also fall victim to George Osborne's child benefit raid.

The plan to abolish the benefit for all higher-rate taxpayers means a loss of £1,055 a year for one-child families and almost £2,500 for those with three children. This move, combined with the VAT increase and cuts to tax credits, will result in a particularly sharp fall in living standards for some.

Clegg was adamant that the coalition would fund its £4.3bn pledge to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 through tax rises elsewhere. "We're not going to borrow," he said. But that prompts the question: tax rises on whom? If the coalition continues to meet the promise by reducing the 40p threshold, it will create another 850,000 higher-rate taxpayers.

But an alternative option was brought to mind by Clegg. He noted that the coalition's tax changes meant that businessmen no longer paid "less tax on their capital gains than their cleaners do on their wages". However, as you'll remember, the original Lib Dem plan to equalise capital gains tax and income-tax rates was blocked by Tory MPs. To my mind, this would be a much fairer way of funding the pledge.

In his recent essay for the NS on reclaiming Keynes, Vince Cable spoke of his desire to shift taxation away from productive investment and towards unproductive assets such as land and property. Increasing capital gains, rather than raising income tax, would be a perfect example of this.

The Tories will be reluctant to make what would be characterised as another "concession" to the Lib Dems but this change would be in their interests, too.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.