Can the right be persuaded to back a "mansion tax"?

ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie says the right should support higher property taxes.

Tim Montgomerie has a typically thoughtful piece in today's Guardian on social justice and the coalition. The ConservativeHome editor points out that the right has accepted significant parts of the Blair-Brown settlement - a ring-fenced NHS (at least in theory), higher international development spending, the minimum wage, a panoply of pensioner benefits - and asks if the left can make similar concessions. He writes: "[C]an the left acknowledge the harm caused by family breakdown? Can Labour politicians get to the point where they agree that single parenthood is sometimes wonderful, often unavoidable but rarely ideal?"

As luck would have it, this week's New Statesman is on that very subject. We asked ten left-wing politicians and thinkers, including Spirit Level authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, Marc Stears, Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Melissa Benn, to address the issue of family breakdown and you can read their responses in the new issue (out today in London and in the rest of the country tomorrow).

Blue Labour thinker Marc Stears, for instance, writes:

For far too long, many of us on the British left have spoken to the country like washed-out tutors of Marxist social science. All questions of family breakdown, domestic abuse and personal ethics have been rendered as issues of material distribution. Problems have been presented as the all but inevitable outcomes of inequalities in income, wealth or opportunity and their solutions said to lie almost exclusively with the redistributive power of the state ... The call to re-engage with the family presents the perfect moment for us to put this oversight right.

In his Guardian article, Montgomerie argues that we must rebalance the welfare state in a pro-family direction. As this week's NS leader noted, a remarkable number of the coalition's benefit cuts - from the abolition of baby bonds and the Health in Pregnancy Grant to the three-year freeze in child benefit - hit families hardest. In addition, as I revealed last month, Cameron has broken his promise to protect Sure Start, a lifeline for low income families, and 20 centres have already been closed. By contrast, benefits for the elderly - free TV licences, free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance [WFA] - have been ring-fenced for entirely political reasons (the elderly vote more than any other age group). Montgomerie proposes means-testing the WFA (80 per cent of recipients are not in fuel poverty) and investing savings of £2.2bn in early intervention programmes. It's a stance that Labour's boldest thinkers, most notably James Purnell, will be sympathetic to.

But Montgomerie also wants the right to make some more concessions of its own. He calls for greater taxation of wealth, including high-value properties, and supports a version of Vince Cable's "mansion tax". Britain, he writes, has taxed income too heavily and wealth too lightly.

It's a subject that the New Statesman has devoted considerable attention to over the past year. In a cover story published in October 2010 ("The coming battle over land and property") NS editor Jason Cowley argued for a new model of taxation that shifts the burden of taxation from earned to unearned income; from taxes on income and consumption to those on property, inheritance and land.

In our leaders, we have 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.

As the coalition's internal debate on taxation continues (the Lib Dems want the 50p rate to be replaced with a range of new property taxes), it's encouraging to see one of the right's brightest thinkers take up this agenda.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses