"Brown's mistake" has already been reversed

The personal allowance has grown to undo any losses the abolition of the 10p rate inflicted.

Ed Miliband has committed to introducing a mansion tax, and using the money to fund a re-introduction of the 10p tax band, saying:

We would tax houses worth over £2 million. And we would use the money to cut taxes for working people. We would put right a mistake made by Gordon Brown and the last Labour government. We would use the money raised by a mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax, with the size of the band depending on the amount raised. This would benefit 25 million basic rate taxpayers.

The original 10 pence tax band was applied on incomes between £0 and £2,230, once the personal allowance was taken into account. Its abolition was used to fund the reduction in the basic rate of tax from 22p to 20p. But while Miliband says he will "put right [the] mistake made by Gordon Brown", he's not going to be reversing the basic rate cut. Instead, the money will come from the mansion tax.

But the Social Market Foundation's Ian Mulheirn points out that that mansion tax is not expected to raise anywhere near as much as two per cent on the basic rate of tax would. He tells me that their expectation for a mansion tax on houses over £2m is in the low billions — probably around £2bn or £3bn.

But every billion pounds raised would only pay for a 10p tax band of between two and three hundred pounds, he says:

We've got about 30 million income taxpayers in the UK, once you take the personal allowance into account. Assuming that they all would benefit by the full amount, then if you've got £1bn to play with, you could have a tax band of about £330.

A tax band of £330 would return £33 to each taxpayer. If the mansion tax raises the high end of estimates, then the band could be around £1000, returning £100 to each taxpayer. That's not to be sniffed at, but it's less than half of the size of the abolished band. It's not putting right Brown's mistake, but it ameliorates it slightly.

But actually, Brown's mistake has already been largely put right.

In 2007, the last year of the 10p tax rate, the personal allowance stood at £5,035. With the 10p band on top, basic rate tax started at £7,265. Uprated for inflation, that will be worth slightly under £9000 in the tax year starting in 2013.

In that same year, the personal allowance will stand at £9,440. Someone who would in 2007 have been paying only the 10p tax rate is today paying no tax at all. Miliband's actions, if introduced in 2015, will likely introduce a reduced tax rate for people earning between £10,000 and £11,000 to complement a zero tax rate for people earning less than that. That's likely a good thing; but it's a new thing, not a reversal of Brown's actions. They have already been undone.

Of course, if you have to delve into uprating tax bands by inflation to prove a point, it's not going to fly very well in political debates. That's why, as George writes, politically, the move is a masterstroke.

Brown walks through Rugby. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network