The left should applaud Osborne's inheritance tax U-turn

The Chancellor's decision to freeze the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000, rather than raise it to a £1m, is an opportunity to put the principled case for the tax.

Back in 2007, when the Tories as much as Labour assumed that boom and bust had been abolished, George Osborne told his party's conference that a Conservative government would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m. It was unacceptable, he said, that a tax "designed to hit the very rich" was increasingly borne by "ordinary people". The pledge was a political masterstroke, prompting a surge in support for the Tories and spooking Gordon Brown into abandoning plans for an early election. 

But the policy looked less impressive by the time of the general election when Osborne's declaration of an "age of austerity" sat uneasily with a pledge to cut taxes by £200,000 for the wealthiest 3,000 estates. The Chancellor, according to Janan Ganesh's recent biography, was secretely glad when the Liberal Democrats gave him political cover to abandon the pledge.

In last year's Autumn Statement, he announced that the inheritance tax threshold, frozen since 2009 at £325,000 (£650,000 for couples), would rise by a paltry 1 per cent in 2015-16 to £329,000. Now he's set to announce that, in fact, it won't rise at all. Instead, to help meet the £1bn a year cost of the coalition's social care plan, the threshold will be frozen at £329,000 until at least 2019. Many more "ordinary people", to use Osborne's phrase (although the average house price is £249,958), will be hit by inheritance tax. Were the threshold to rise in line with inflation, it would stand at £420,000 in 2019. 

In other words, Osborne is effectively increasing the tax - and he is right to do so. If "equality of opportunity" is to be more than merely a slogan, a progressive inheritance tax system is essential to prevent privilege being automatically transferred from one generation to the next. As Warren Buffett sagely observed when he campaigned against George W. Bush's plan to abolish "the death tax", one would not choose the 2020 Olympic team "by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics". It would, he added, replace a meritocracy with an "aristocracy of wealth". Inheritance tax is currently levied at 40 per cent; a progressive government would consider introducing a higher band for the wealthiest estates. 

Osborne's U-turn may have more to do with his desperate need for revenue than any conversion to progressive taxation but it is an opportunity for Labour to finally make the principled case for the tax. 

George Osborne plans to freeze the inheritance tax threshold at £325,000 until 2019. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.