Minimum pricing: the key questions

Some aspects of the debate are more settled than others.

Minimum pricing for alcohol is back in the news today, as ministers are expected to announce that the price per unit will be 45p.

Since the new information is rather technical (importantly, the average price-per-unit in a recent IFS study was 44.8p, so this price will have a material effect), what we're actually getting is less a discussion of whether 45p is too high, too low or just right, and more rehashing of old arguments. So here they are again.

Minimum pricing lowers alcohol consumption

The Lancet concludes:

Natural experiments in Europe consequent to economic treaties have shown that as alcohol taxes and prices were lowered, so sales, alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related harm have usually increased.

Samira Shackle wrote in February that:

A 2008 model by the University of Sheffield suggested that a high enough minimum price could significantly reduce the impact and cost of alcohol to society. It found that problem drinkers seek out the cheapest ways to get drunk as they tend to be either young or those who drink a lot, and therefore would change their behaviour in response to price increases more than moderate drinkers would.

It's hardly surprising. All that is being concluded is that, on a societal basis, alcohol sales obey the laws of supply and demand (as an aside, it's fascinating that those normally most wedded to this rule of thumb are quickest to argue with it in this situation).

There is some countervailing evidence. An IEA paper suggests that there is no cross-national correlation between affordability of alcohol and total consumption:

Chart

Nonetheless, the balance of evidence is strongly on the side of minimum pricing having some effect on consumption.

Minimum pricing hits some types of problem drinkers harder than others

Alcoholics – people with a pathological addiction to alcohol – are unlikely to reduce their consumption that much in the face of minimum pricing. It is nearly the definition of addiction that you prioritise feeding that addiction, and that is no different with alcoholism. Minimum pricing hurts alcoholics with basically no upside (although for a few it may be the final straw to seek help).

The policy is instead aimed at a different sort of problem drinkers: binge drinkers, who suffer their own health problems but are thought to be far more price-sensitive.

In this aspect it can be seen as a trade-off: hurting alcoholics to help binge drinkers.

Minimum pricing hits the poor hardest

George Eaton writes:

As a recent ONS study noted, 'people in poorer households spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol duty than higher wage earners.'

Additionally, price-based controls always hit the poor hardest by their very nature. That doesn't necessarily mean they're aimed at the poor, just that the mechanism by which they work has less effect on people with enough disposable income not to care (cf. fuel duty, carbon taxes, prescription charges and passport fees).

Minimum pricing is a boon for supermarkets

Matt Cavanagh writes:

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’.

This transfer is largely unavoidable if the major benefit of minimum pricing – the fact that it prevents retailers absorbing the cost – is to be maintained. As I wrote in March:

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.

It might be illegal under EU law

The European Union is quite prescriptive about how sin taxes work. The European Commission has warned that Scotland's implementation "causes problems with the compatibility with the EU Treaty", and previous attempts have been shot down by the courts. Not that that's not a reason not to try.

Of course, none of these questions address what is really the heart of the matter: how far does the government's right or responsibility to alter people's behaviour to protect them extend? That's a valid debate to have; but it is a separate one from whether minimum pricing would work at achieving its stated goals. To that, the answer is a cautious yes, but it remains worth noting that its goals are reducible to "stopping poorer binge drinkers from drinking so much". That may still be a valid aim, but its a weaker one that many defenders have made it out to be.

Booze. 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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.