The 50p tax isn't going to greatly enrich the treasury - but private pensions will

Ed Balls's 50p tax is nothing but theatrical politics - pay close attention to the Lifetime Allowance, the cap on pension funds, which has already been lowered and most likely will be again.

“It’s still £98.13 no matter if you have just installed a self-retracting awning sir.”

“But look, look at this picture – four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a recently extended kitchen and planning permission for a loft conversion.”

“It is very nice – would you please take your estate agent's valuation out of my face - but it’s still £98.13 for the groceries, or should I call my Supervisor?”

This is a familiar scene for me and my chosen check-out lady at my local supermarket in Wandsworth. She simply refuses to accept that my house, independently verified by an estate agent, is exchangeable for any amount of goods and services at her retail outlet. No matter how wealthy I tell her I am, she nearly always expects something that looks like ready cash. There is just no pleasing some people.

The distinction between wealth and money should be obvious. Still, it doesn’t stop some people trying to mix the two things up. Ed Ball’s announcement that a Labour administration would reintroduce the 50p tax band has deflected us from the wealth/money problem in a rather pitiful attempt to launch some sort of class war between the haves and the have nots. You can understand the shadow chancellor’s motivation: it is a mathematical certainty that the have nots are always going to be in the majority. The haves wouldn’t be your natural voting group. Besides, they are probably too busy whooping it up in Davos to notice anything you say.

The problem with this kind of theatrics is that although, in the short term, it will have the gallery punching the air in support – a recent YouGov poll shows that 61 per cent of people surveyed support the 50p income tax rate - the passage of time has a terrible way of reclassifying who is defined as wealthy and who is described as poor. For instance, this April a new and little understood change in pensions legislation will come into force, which is subtle but something of a time bomb if you think you aren’t with the haves. Something called a Lifetime Allowance (LTA) is being applied to everyone: the amount that you can have in a pension without penalty is being capped at £1,250,000 – if you have anything in a pension above this limit, when you retire, you will be taxed at up to 55 per cent on the excess.

Now I am sure there are many of you sitting there thinking “Good – make the bankers pay” (it’s always bankers in some people’s minds), while you are also probably thinking that £1,250,000 as a pension fund is outside anything imaginable for most people. And it is – currently.

Estimates I have seen show that about 30,000 people will be captured by it immediately, but that’s still only enough to fill Fulham Football Club’s ground to overflowing. Even with the current limit, about 360,000 people are expected to be captured by the time they retire.

HMRC have a way of calculating what your pension pot equivalent is – they merely multiply your expected pension income by 20. So let’s imagine that you expect to have total pension rights which pay something close to the national average of about £15,000. Well, that would give you a current pension fund size of £300,000 according to HMRC. It’s a big number, but nowhere near the one and a quarter million mark. Now let’s also imagine that we actually start to see pension income rising in line with inflation over the next ten years (as the baby boomers retire). In that case your pension fund will be worth the equivalent of over £400,000. This doesn’t allow for the growth of the underlying investment, so that is a lower limit – it wouldn’t be difficult to show how that number quickly becomes more than £500,000 if you allow for any rise in the value of the underlying investments. If you are lucky enough to have a pension income greater than that and say approaching the present average income then your pension fund could easily look like £900,000, putting you within spitting distance of the current LTA.

History tells us that things like the Lifetime Allowance start off in one place and end up in another – it has already come down from £1,800,000 to £1,250,000. I suspect that, as time progresses and the pensions problem moves from a distant rumble to a deafening roar, that the LTA number will fall to capture a lot more people than the capacity of Craven Cottage. In fact, one day, I doubt you’d be able to get them all in to the total capacity of the Premier League of a Saturday. In other words, a lot of people are about to be reclassified as Haves, and without knowing it, they will have become The New Wealthy Poor – those who have no money but are assessed to be wealthy and to add insult to injury may even have a large tax liability on retirement.

Let’s face it, the money for our pension promises and the care of the elderly is going to have to come from somewhere (we can’t just dump it all on the next generation) and, as we have seen, general taxation and silly gimmicks like Balls's 50p higher tax rates do not transform our public finances no matter what the opinion polls show. The one area that is ripe for raiding is the private wealth of the general public (not just the wealthy elite) and the reduction of the Lifetime Allowance is just the opening salvo in a long and stealthy war to get at it.

Ed Balls speaking to the Confederation of British Industry. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle