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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times