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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.