The Lib Dems' new property tax plan

Clegg and Cable push for a new tax on profits from first homes above £1m.

George Osborne has long made it clear that he regards the 50p tax rate as a "temporary" measure that will be abolished as soon as politically possible. As I noted earlier this year, Osborne has pencilled in 2013 as the earliest opportunity to remove the top rate. One of the most interesting debates in the coalition at the moment is on what (if anything) should replace it.

Both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable believe that the 50p rate should be replaced with a range of new property taxes and details of their plans are beginning to emerge. As today's Daily Mail reports, rather than a version of Cable's "mansion tax", the Lib Dems are now pushing for the introduction of capital gains tax on profits from first homes above £1m. Alongside this, they plan to reduce VAT on home improvements to 5 per cent (to encourage owners to renovate rather than to sell) and scrap stamp duty for low earners.

The move is part of a distinctly liberal attempt to shift the burden of taxation from earned income to unearned wealth (property, inheritance and land). Taking their cue from John Stuart Mill, the Lib Dems believe that the tax system should do more to reward merit, enterprise and innovation. As Vince Cable put it in his essay for the New Statesman on reclaiming Keynes, taxation should be diverted away from "profitable, productive investment" and towards "unproductive asset accumulation".

The NS has long argued that there are strong, principled and pragmatic arguments for higher taxes on property. As a recent editorial noted:

These automatically apply to largely untaxed foreign owners, target the source of much unearned wealth and are harder to avoid than taxes on income. In addition, they reduce the distorting effect that property speculation has on the economy.

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 allowance to £10,000 by the end of this parliament and is now set to restructure the taxation of top earners along liberal lines.

It remains unclear what stance Labour will take on this issue. During the leadership contest, Ed Miliband consistently argued for a "permanent" 50p rate but he has since modified his stance. He now merely says that abolishing the top rate is not a "priority" for him and that he will not take decisions on taxation this early in the parliament.

But having fought so long for a new top rate, many in Labour, including Miliband, will be reluctant to change course now. The tax is an important symbol of the party's commitment to a more equal society and pollsl show that it is popular with the voters. A recent Sunday Times/YouGov survey, for instance, found that 33 per cent think the top rate should eventually be brought down, 49 per cent think it should be made permanent and 51 per cent would like to see the threshold brought down to £100,000, with 29 per cent opposed. But electoral considerations aside, there is little doubt that the Lib Dems' bold agenda will require a more intellectually rigorous approach from Labour.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.