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: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.