Miliband's 10p tax pledge is a political masterstroke

The Labour leader has distanced himself from one of Gordon Brown's biggest mistakes, demonstrated his commitment to redistribution and left the coalition playing catch-up.

It looks like Ed Miliband has been reading the New Statesman. Last week's NS leader urged the Labour leader to call for the return of the 10p tax rate (as demanded by Conservative MP Robert Halfon) and in his speech on the economy, Miliband has done just that. 

Having borrowed one smart idea from a Tory, Miliband has borrowed another from a Lib Dem (Vince Cable). The return of the 10p rate will be funded by the introduction of a "mansion tax" on houses worth more than £2m. 

The numbers will need to be scrutinised but the politics are perfect. The pledge distances Miliband from one of Gordon Brown's greatest mistakes, demonstrates his commitment to redistribution and splits the coalition. The Tories want a 10p tax rate but oppose a mansion tax; the Lib Dems want a mansion tax but oppose a 10p rate (preferring an even higher personal allowance of £12,500). 

Here's the key section from the speech: 

A One Nation Labour budget next month would lay the foundations for a recovery made by the many, not just a few at the top.

Let me tell you about one crucial choice we would make, which is different from this government.

We would tax houses worth over £2 million.

And we would use the money to cut taxes for working people.

We would put right a mistake made by Gordon Brown and the last Labour government.

We would use the money raised by a mansion tax to reintroduce a lower 10 pence starting rate of tax, with the size of the band depending on the amount raised.

This would benefit 25 million basic rate taxpayers.

Moving Labour on from the past and putting Labour where it should always have been, on the side of working people.

The question now is how George Osborne will respond when he delivers the Budget on 20 March. David Cameron hinted at PMQs yesterday that the Chancellor would announce the return of the 10p tax rate but having ruled out the introduction of a mansion tax, he'll need to find another means of funding it. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are sceptical of the measure, arguing that a income tax threshold will do more to benefit the poorest.

As Lib Dem minister David Laws argued yesterday: "It's [raising the personal allowance] much simpler than having a 10p rate. It’s far more attractive to say to people on low incomes you won't pay any income tax until you earn a sensible amount of money. We’re even talking about raising it further in the next Parliament so people on minimum wage don’t pay any tax at all."

But whatever deal the coalition hammers out, Miliband's political masterstroke means Osborne now has no choice but to play a "trump card" at the Budget. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband pledged to reintroduce the 10p tax rate abolished by Gordon Brown in his speech on the economy in Bedford. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.