Why Osborne is wrong on the Robin Hood Tax

The Chancellor has framed the debate as an EU attack on British prosperity. This does not stand-up.

George Osborne ripped back his well maintained veneer of ambivalence towards the Robin Hood Tax this week, revealing his true identity as the protector of the privileged few in City.

Having been given the advice of the IMF, Bill Gates and the European Commission who have all shown Financial Transaction Taxes (FTTs) are feasible, Osborne chose to ignore them, declaring instead it would be "economic suicide". But while his attempt to frame the debate as an EU attack on British prosperity may have superficial appeal -- John Major has made a similar attack today, claiming in the Guardian that an FTT would fan the flames of Euroscepticism -- it does not stand-up to economic scrutiny.

Let's start with the growth argument. Earlier this year, Osborne increased VAT (the transactions tax we all pay in the real economy) by 2.5 per cent to 20 per cent. VAT increases push up prices and are certainly not good for growth and they hit the poorest twice as hard as the rich. Yet now Osborne is casting a 0.05 per cent tax on the financial transactions of investment banks and hedge funds as bad for growth. The irony is of course, that as the IMF pointed out, financial transactions are VAT exempt.

The fact that a Robin Hood Tax would raise billions to protect jobs, services and the poorest was handily ignored. So too was the fact it would rein in rogue elements of the financial sector responsible for a crisis that will, according to the Bank of England, ultimately cost the UK at least £1.8 trillion and as much as £7.4 trillion in lost GDP. The biggest threat to our long term growth is surely an unrestrained financial sector and not a 0.05 per cent tax on their transactions. Any job losses are likely to occur in the exclusive corners of the investment banks a million miles away from high street banking.

Osborne's claim that not a single bank would pay this tax is plain wrong. The bit he did get right is that banks as intermediaries would not pay the tax, but the parties initiating the trades would. So who are initiating the trades? Er, it's the banks. And other financial institutions such as hedge funds who represent high net worth individuals and the richest segments of society. It's why the IMF has said an FTT would in all likelihood be "highly progressive": being paid by those most able to afford it.

More surprising than Osborne's offensive has been Vince Cable's amazing transformation. Cable himself has on a number of occasions supported the Robin Hood Tax, it's even in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Until Wednesday that is, when he described it as a "tax on Britain", seemingly conflating the financial sector with the UK as a whole.

Worse still, Cable resorted to citing the infamous Swedish FTT from the 1980s. Focusing on this example, unique in its bad design, whilst omitting to mention the Stamp Duty on UK shares which successfully raises the Exchequer more than £3 billion a year, is disingenuous at best. It's a bit like showing us a picture of a square-wheeled bike as evidence that all bicycles are flawed, having just arrived by bike. The key to the Stamp Duty's success is the way it is levied; wherever in the world a UK share is traded - London, New York or the Cayman Islands - the tax still has to be paid.

Osborne and Cable were right about one thing however; no one wants all this money to disappear into the European coffers. A Robin Hood Tax has received such massive support -- from the UK public (who back it by two to one), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Vatican and millions around the world -- not just because it would curtail casino capitalism but also because it would help tackle poverty and climate change at home and abroad.

Thankfully, the threat of co-option into a "Brussels tax" is overblown. As the Germans recently pointed out, each country would collect the tax nationally. Our campaign wants to see half the money spent helping poor countries and half (that's billions of pounds) spent protecting schools and hospitals, teachers and nurses at home. So, far from the size of the UK's financial sector meaning we have the most to lose from an FTT, we have the most to gain.

By ignoring the positives and exaggerating the negatives the government is compiling themselves a dodgy dossier of reasons not to back the Robin Hood Tax. In doing so they risk putting themselves at odds with public opinion and international momentum behind ensuring the financial sector pays its fair share.

Simon Chouffot is the Robin Hood Tax campaign's spokesperson

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation