Lower taxes and other election lies

Westminster

The barefaced falsehood is so rare in politics that it can kill careers. Subterfuge and stealth are considered fair game, but downright lies are out. With an election coming up some time this year, the electorate should now be paying close attention to the words, rather than the lips, of the contenders. Stealth politics is designed to get under the defences of the most vigilant voter.

There is nothing new in stealth. Margaret Thatcher is commonly believed to have been a very forthright politician of steadfast beliefs, a woman who minced no words. Such is the stuff of mythology. In 1979, Labour claimed that the Tories would have to double value-added tax to pay for promised cuts in income tax.

"We will not double it," said Thatcher, although she had already decided to increase the standard rate of VAT from 8 to 15 per cent. Not quite double, but . . .

Similarly, John Major said repeatedly in 1992 that he had no intention of extending value-added tax. After his government slapped the tax on domestic gas and power bills, he claimed he had not lied because at the time of the election he really had had no intention . . .

Taxation is a tricky area. Tony Blair told Labour's spring conference that the top scientists who had cracked the genetic make-up of every human being were now trying to work out the implications of Tory tax and spending policies.

They might as usefully attempt to interpret a sentence currently being peddled on Labour websites: "The tax burden on a single-earner family on average earnings with two children . . . will be the lowest since 1972." That is untrue.

Labour's web of weasel words is following the Prime Minister, who told the Commons on 10 November 1999: "As a result of our plans - particularly the direct tax cut - the average tax burden on the average family will fall next year to its lowest level ever." That was preposterously untrue.

A similar blunder was made by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in the Commons last February, when he said the next financial year would bring "the lowest tax burden on ordinary families for 20 years".

In November's pre-Budget statement, Brown promised that if everything went to plan for the spring Budget, "I will achieve my aim of next year cutting the direct [my italics] tax burden on the typical family to below 20 per cent. It will fall to 18.6 per cent, the lowest since 1972." Sometimes ministers talk of the tax burden, and at others the direct tax burden, as if they were one and the same thing.

Brown should know better, for he is the man who killed off the long-standing historical tax burden comparison - indirect and direct - for the two-child family with one earner on an average income.

Why would he do that? Because he knew the family tax burden was going up, and he wanted to bury the evidence. The overall tax burden has risen from 35.3 per cent of national income in Major's last year to 36.9 per cent this financial year. Next year, the Treasury forecasts, it will rise to 37.3 per cent. Traditional tax burden tables would have translated those impersonal, national figures, showing their impact on ordinary people.

There has been a marked increase in indirect taxation under Brown. More importantly, however, indirect tax is regressive - it hits the poorest hardest.

The Treasury said last year that while 28 per cent of the gross income of the poorest fifth of household groups went on indirect tax, it amounted to a burden of only 12 per cent for the richest fifth of households.

That fact sits uncomfortably with something else Blair said at the spring conference, when he reiterated Labour's Clause Four vision, "to shift the balance of power, wealth and opportunity away from the privileged few and into the hands of the many".

The minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the lowest inflation and interest rates for 30 years, the New Deal commitment to full employment and the lowest unemployment for 25 years - all give a great shove towards greater opportunity and social justice.

Yet bog-standard comprehensive schools are the only option for many parents; they have no choice, no selection. Many hospitals are badly managed: the trolley is testament to that. Riddled with heroin, many sink estates have sunk. The privatised railways are a monument to Thatcherite theology. Labour must show how they can be made to run on time.

It can be done. On a two-day tour in November, Blair visited Salt School, in Shipley, West Yorkshire; the Bradford South and West Primary Care Trust; the Leeds Seacroft Partnership, working with New Deal to train the long-term unemployed to take up jobs with Tesco; and the magnificent North Tyneside General Hospital - all places and projects where public service is working wonders for real live people, pupils and patients.

Out there, beyond the lens and pens of the national media, the difference is being delivered by fine teachers, doctors, nurses, NHS managers and policemen.

The Prime Minister is now seeking a second term. He knows that if he does not deliver across-the-board improvement to public services in the next four years, the Tories could make their comeback.

"If we who believe in public services do not reform them so that they offer not the basics but excellence," Blair said, "then those who don't believe in them will use their shortcomings to destroy them altogether." He really means that.

But conviction should repel stealth. At his first conference as party leader, Blair said: "Let us have the confidence once again that we can debate new ideas, new thinking, without forever fearing the taunt of betrayal. Let us say what we mean and mean what we say." The time for stealth is gone. If Labour can be proud of the truth, what need for lies?

Jackie Ashley returns next week