Clegg: property taxes should replace the 50p rate

Deputy Prime Minister says 50p rate will be scrapped once low and middle incomes are “breathing more

If George Osborne's hint in last week's Budget wasn't enough, we now know for certain that the 50p tax rate will be scrapped at some point during this parliament. In an interview with the Financial Times, Nick Clegg suggests that the tax will be abolished once those on low and middle incomes are "breathing more easily" and will be replaced with a range of new property taxes.

As Clegg points out, Osborne won't want to scrap the 50p rate until he's certain that he can offer relief elsewhere. Polls show that the tax is relatively popular with voters and Labour would seize any opportunity to portray the Chancellor as a friend of the rich. It's notable that while the progressive 50p rate is "temporary", the regressive VAT increase is "permanent".

Senior Lib Dems, most notably Vince Cable, have long spoken of their desire to divert taxation away from income and towards property. In his recent New Statesman essay on reclaiming Keynes for the coalition, the Business Secretary wrote of the need to shift taxation "away from profitable, productive investment (as opposed to unproductive asset accumulation, as with property)".

Before this, in his speech at last year's Lib Dem conference, Cable also argued for higher taxes on land as well as property (the subject of a recent NScover story by Jason Cowley).

He said:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

Over the weekend, Cable returned to this theme in several interviews and spoke of the need to "shift from high marginal rates of tax on income which are undesirable, to taxation of wealth, including property". Asked if he was considering a so-called "mansion tax", he said: "I'm sure that's one of the things we're going to have to look at."

Clegg's FT interview is short on detail, although, unlike Cable, he rules out a version of the "mansion tax" proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election and supported by David Miliband during the Labour leadership contest. Instead, he suggests the coalition will "look at the way the council tax system is structured; the way stamp duty is structured".

Another option, as Jason suggested in his piece, would be to introduce capital gains tax on the profits made from the sale of first homes.

On taxation at least, the Lib Dems can now claim to be exerting serious influence on the Tories. Osborne has embraced their plan to raise the personal income-tax allowance to £10,000 by the end of this parliament and is now set to restructure the taxation of top earners along liberal lines.

Labour must hope that the 50p rate raises some significant revenue. If not, the party could be left on the wrong side of the tax debate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.