Miliband calls it right: tax income less and wealth more

As the NS has long argued, Labour should fund tax cuts for low and middle earners by finding new ways of taxing static assets, such as mansions and land.

It was a good speech from Ed Miliband today. He’s clearly been reading the New Statesman, which endorsed his bid for the leadership in 2010, just one of the many things we’ve got right over recent years – such as our forecast long ago that premature fiscal consolidation would result in a double dip recession, predicting a hung parliament (when no one else did) and calling for UK withdrawal from Afghanistan and talks with Taliban (now a mainstream position).

We’ve consistently argued that Labour should seek to reduce the tax burden for low and middle income earners and, because capital is so mobile and the very rich are so adept at avoiding income tax, find new ways of taxing unearned income and static assets, such as mansions and land. This is not a left/right issue: Vince Cable, Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, and Tim Montgomerie, of the excellent ConservativeHome website, are all in favour of the introduction of new wealth taxes.

The UK needs a more resilient tax base and Labour, if it is to have any chance of winning again, must abandon unreconstructed statism and its old, failed tax and transfer redistributive model (we consider National Insurance to be a form of income tax, and Gordon Brown certainly used it as such with his devious manoeuvres). That’s why we support greater emphasis on “predistribution” (awful word but good concept). 

In last week’s magazine we supported, as George says, the admirable Conservative MP for Harlow (my old home town in Essex) Robert Halfon’s call for the restoration of the 10p tax band for earnings between the personal allowance, which will rise to £9,440 in April, and £12,000, a measure worth £256 to basic-rate taxpayers. Now Ed Miliband is saying that Labour would reintroduce the 10p rate. That is smart politics, and just the kind of distinctive policy it will need as it seeks to remake itself as the party of social justice, entrepreneurial initiative and the competent state in the run-up to the 2015 election. Above all, Labour needs to show that it has learned the lessons of the Blair/Brown years, when asset bubbles were allowed to inflate dangerously, the party became carless and arrogant in power and far too nonchalant about rising inequality. Game on.   

The 12-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens bought by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for $128.3m in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.