70 per cent of the cost of cutting the personal allowance goes to the richest half of society

Income tax is quite progressive; better to cut VAT or council tax.

Tomorrow is the beginning of the 2013/2014 tax year, and one of the changes that's going through is the latest rise in the Personal Allowance, which is increasing from £8,105 to £9,440. The Tories are making a big thing of it, launching this poster campaign:

That's going to sting for the Liberal Democrats, who are desperate to claim the increased personal allowance as their legacy from this government. But the phrasing is interesting, and worth examining.

For this poster, the Conservatives have dropped their favourite claim of "2.7 million taken out of tax altogether". That's good, because as the FT's Chris Cook explains, it's not exactly true:

The poorest families are paying a lot more in indirect tax (VAT, fuel duty, booze taxes) than in direct tax (income tax, NICs, council tax). In fact, direct taxes only overtake indirect taxes in size when you hit the fifth decile.

If you look at the second decile of households by income, just over 10 per cent of the taxes they pay are income tax. The other 90 per cent of their tax burden – still over £4,000 a year – comes from various other taxes, principally council tax and VAT. Between them, those two taxes account for almost half the tax burden on that decile.

But while it might not be the case that the tax cut takes workers "out of tax", it certainly is a tax cut for 24 million people. But rather than being a positive, this is actually the biggest flaw in the policy. This chart, prepared by the Resolution Foundation (pdf), shows the distribution of that tax cut amongst houses of different incomes:

As the chart clearly shows, the families with the biggest cash gain are the third richest tenth in the country, who get £210 each; and the families with the biggest proportional gain are the fifth richest tenth, gaining an extra 0.61 per cent of their income.

Meanwhile, the poorest families barely benefit from the rise at all. That's unsurprising; you need to be earning at least £8,105 a year for the rise to help you in any way, and at least £9,440 to gain the full benefit. And in a household, that needs to be true of both earners – otherwise half the allowance is wasted.

The chart also lets us get an idea of the distribution of the costs of the rise. Almost exactly 70 per cent of the revenue being forfeit for the increase in the allowance comes from the richest half of the nation. Less than 1 per cent of the money actually goest to the poorest ten per cent in the country.

The truth is that income tax in Britain is already one of the most progressive taxes we've got. The poorest in the nation pay little, while the richest pay most of their tax in income tax. As a result, if you want to cut taxes to help the poor, you would be better off returning VAT to its old rate of 17.5 per cent or increasing – rather than reducing – the number of people exempt from council tax. If you want to cut taxes to help the rich, going after income tax is the right way to do it.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser