Clegg aids Labour's tax attack on the Tories

The Deputy PM went further than before and accused his coalition partners of turning "a blind eye to the super wealthy" by opposing a mansion tax.

The Tories and the Lib Dems have never sought to hide their differences over a mansion tax. But Nick Clegg went further than ever last night when he accused his coalition partners of "turning a blind eye to the super wealthy". He told ITV News

The Conservatives need to speak for themselves. I for the life of me don't understand why the Conservatives think it's ok that an oligarch can buy a palace in Regent's Park for tens of millions of pounds and pay the same council tax as a three-bedroom family house in Lewisham.

That is just unfair. We can't keep turning a blind eye to the super wealthy basically being taxed the same way on their properties as hard working families across the country.

Clegg's words prompt the question of whether the Lib Dems will line up with Labour if and when Ed Miliband succeeds in forcing a Commons vote on a mansion tax. Vince Cable has suggested that his party will vote in favour of the opposition motion provided that it is not tied to the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate (which the Lib Dems oppose) and Clegg similarly indicated that it would depend on the wording. 

Neither Vince nor I know what will be put before us so we can't of course determine in advance how we would vote.

But of course the Liberal Democrats for a long time have been the leading advocate of greater fairness in tax.

I've been told by a Labour source that the motion will not include a commitment to introduce a 10p tax band in order to maximise the chances of support from the Lib Dems. The party sees the vote as a chance to show how the Tories are on the wrong side of the new tax divide in British politics. Miliband believes that the Conservatives' decision to write privately to their donors soliciting funds to combat a "homes tax" leaves them particularly vulnerable to the charge that they are the party of the rich. 

The irony is that before the last Budget, George Osborne, the man now leading the charge against the tax, considered introducting two or three new higher council tax bands on houses worth more than £1m, a measure that the Lib Dems could have presented as a mansion tax. But this option was ruled out after David Cameron's shire Tory instincts asserted themselves and the PM personally vetoed the proposal. With the Tories now having ruled out anything resembling a mansion tax, the Lib Dems see no reason to go easy on their coalition partners.  

Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the trade union leadership

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.