The minimum price dilemma

Yes, minimum prices put money in the pockets of the supermarkets - but that's the necessary evil of the project.

The IFS yesterday released its analysis of the effect of a minimum price for alcohol, and it made some interesting points.

Far from what one would believe from Theresa May's statement on the matter, and the press focus on "supermarket multi-buys" and "cut-price alcohol", it is by no means just the cheapest booze which would be hit by a proposed floor of 40p a unit. With the average price-per-unit just 44.8p in their sample, a total of 47.8 per cent of drinks would have their prices hit by the changes. For some types, it's even worse. Over 80 per cent of ciders will see price increases.

The correlations between price and wealth, and price and quantity consumed, are as you would expect (or even slightly weaker):

The average price for those with incomes below £10,000 per year is around 42p per unit, compared to 51p for those above £60,000. Households consuming fewer than 7 units of alcohol per adult per week pay almost 49p per unit, compared to 41p for those consuming more than 35 units.

One area where the report isn't quite so compelling, however, is in its call for minimum pricing to be enacted through the tax system rather than a simple floor.

In this, the authors echo an argument made by Matt Cavanagh in the Spectator last month (Cavanagh clearly being psychic, he managed to address the issues a month before the Home Secretary even raised them), when he wrote:

Last year’s IFS study [pdf] estimated that, assuming ‘no behavioural response from consumers and no wider price effects’, the 45p MUP proposed by the SNP in 2010, if introduced across the UK, ‘would transfer £1.4 billion from alcohol consumers to producers and retailers’. By contrast, an MUP implemented indirectly, via changes in duty, would transfer this money to the Exchequer, which could reduce the need for spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere.

The problem for both the IFS and Cavanagh is that the single biggest argument the government has in favour of minimum pricing is wrecked if it is implemented through duty.

The rough plan (which would still be an enormous shake-up to the current way "sin taxes" are administered, and is likely illegal under EU law) would involve changing duty so that it is charged at a flat rate per unit, rather than the current variable rates depending on the type, as well as the strength, of alcohol. At present, only spirits, fortified wine and beer are taxed purely in relation to strength, with all other drinks merely striated into broad categories.

In order to prevent this increase being absorbed by supermarkets as a loss-leader (even with duty at the much lower current rates, it is possible to buy some drinks which are sold for less than the combined duty and VAT charged on them), this would have to be combined with legislation preventing shops from selling for less than the duty charged on the drink.

Enacting this plan would indeed result in a sharp rise in alcohol prices, with most or all of the increase going to the treasury rather than the supermarkets or drinks companies. But the increase would come from all drinks, rather than just the cheaper ones that the proposed minimum price is targeting.

With a minimum price, a drink which is already over the floor would see no price increase at all. If a three-unit bottle of beer costs at least £1.20 before the change, it will cost the same after. This allows the government to truthfully say that the price will hit heavy drinkers hardest and have the happy side-effect of aiding our flagging pubs (while slightly less truthfully claiming moderate drinkers aren't affected; the IFS confirms they are still "substantially affected").

The same is not true if the increase is put in through the tax system. That £1.20 bottle of beer may have around £0.60 of duty on it before the change, with production making up the other £0.60. After an increase, it suddenly has £1.20 of duty on it, with production still taking up £0.60. While, of course, supermarkets and drinks companies have profits which they may choose to cut into to prevent a price increase, it is unlikely they would be able to suck up all the extra cost.

In a 2011 paper, the IFS offer some concessions to this problem. They point out that as a percentage increase, a higher duty would still hit cheaper drinks more, and it is certainly the case that the public will be a lot more comfortable with any price rises going into general taxation than into the pockets of businesses.

Nonetheless, the strongest argument the government has in favour of minimum pricing is that it only affects the cheapest drinks and the heaviest drinkers. The IFS study already puts that on shaky ground, but trying to do the same thing through general taxation would blow a hole in the argument altogether. If the aim is simply to discourage drinking by raising prices across the board, then that can be achieved through taxation. But the aim of minimum pricing is more nuanced than that, and there's no point in pretending that it can be done any other way.

Not hit by a minimum price: a cocktail in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Credit: Getty

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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.