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.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war