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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle