Miliband’s mansion tax retoxifies the Tory brand – and portrays the Lib Dems as helpless hostages

The Tories' opposition to a mansion tax puts them on the wrong side of the new divide in British politics.

George Osborne knows better than most how tax pledges can wrong-foot a government. It was his promise at the 2007 Conservative conference to raise the inheritance-tax threshold to £1m, funded by an annual levy of £25,000 on non-domiciled taxpayers, that spooked Gordon Brown into calling off an early election and earned Osborne his reputation as his party’s sharpest political brain. Labour MPs still wince at the memory of the subsequent “magpie Budget” in which Alistair Darling, under orders from Brown, sought to mimic Osborne’s proposals.

Five and a half years later, it is the Tories who have been blindsided by Labour’s version of Osborne’s gambit. Like the shadow chancellor in 2007, Ed Miliband twinned a popular tax cut (a 10p rate of income tax) with a popular tax rise (a “mansion tax”) and positioned himself on the side of the middle classes. In the Labour camp, there is satisfaction at how the speech has succeeded in defining the pre-Budget terms of debate. It is a sign of Miliband’s enhanced stature that his proposals are now being discussed on the assumption that there is a good chance of them becoming law. The tax pledge has reassured those MPs previously troubled by the party’s lack of emblematic policies. As one frontbencher told me, “It passes the doorstep test.”

It was the Conservative MP Robert Halfon who originally proposed a reintroduced 10p tax rate as an artful piece of Tory detoxification. When I met him in his Commons office the day before Miliband’s speech, he lamented how Labour’s “brilliant” campaign against the abolition of the 50p tax rate had defined the Tories as “a party only interested in cutting taxes for millionaires”. Polling shows that just 9 per cent of the public believe the Conservatives best represent the interests of low-paid public-sector workers, while just 14 per cent believe they best represent their private-sector counterparts. By bringing back the 10p rate on income above the personal allowance and by funding it through the revenue generated by the 45p rate, Halfon argued that the Conservatives could prove that they believed in “tax cuts for the many, not just the few”.

The proposal won the support of key Osborne allies, including his former chief of staff Matthew Hancock, and was earmarked by the Treasury for inclusion in the 2014 Budget. Yet following Miliband’s deft act of political plagiarism, it is now off the table. Unlike Brown in 2007, Osborne has no intention of dancing to the opposition’s tune. Instead, he has sought to give the coalition’s policy of raising the personal allowance a harder edge by branding it as a “zero per cent tax rate”. This, he said, would be “more attractive at an election than a 10 per cent tax rate”. Rather than introducing a new tax band – a measure that would sit uneasily with his commitment to a simplified tax system – Osborne is more likely to seek to increase the personal allowance beyond the original target of £10,000.

A far greater problem than the loss of the 10p tax rate is the coalescing of Labour and the Liberal Democrats around a mansion tax. Of the three main parties, only the Tories now believe that a family in a three-bedroom house in Tower Hamlets should pay the same rate of property tax as an oligarch in a Kensington palace. Those voters who select what James O’Shaughnessy, David Cam­eron’s former director of policy, calls the “dreaded posh family in front of a mansion” when asked to choose the picture that best represents the Tories have had all their prejudices confirmed.

The irony is that it was Osborne – who is now leading the charge against a new property tax – who agreed to introduce two higher council tax bands on houses worth more than £1m ahead of last year’s Autumn Statement before being overruled by Cam­eron. It later emerged that the Tories had surreptitiously written to their wealthy donors soliciting funds to campaign against a “homes tax”, a fact that Miliband gleefully cites as proof that the Prime Minister “stands up for the wrong people”. The Labour leader intends to increase the Tories’ discomfort by using an opposition day debate to force a Commons vote on a mansion tax. In order to maximise the chances of support from Nick Clegg’s party, the motion is not expected to include a reference to the 10p tax rate.

As Miliband hoped, his appropriation of the measure has already forced the Lib Dems into even more aggressive differentiation. Clegg accuses his coalition partners of “turning a blind eye to the super-wealthy” and of defending the interests of “people in very large mansions”. For Labour, such interventions have a dual purpose; they retoxify the Conservative brand while reinforcing the impression of the Lib Dems as the helpless hostages of a Tory clique.

Ever since the Thatcher era, British politics has been governed by the belief that the left won the culture war and the right won the economic war. Yet increasingly it feels as if the reverse is now the case. The left is winning the debate on the need for greater financial regulation and taxation of the wealthy, while the right is winning the debate on the need for a new social conservatism to heal Britain’s “broken society”. In their opposition to a mansion tax, the Tories have positioned themselves on the wrong side of this divide. Until they do otherwise, that picture of the “dreaded posh family” will continue to define them.

Ed Miliband and Swedish Social Democratic leader Stefan Lofven talk after a visit at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?