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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.