PMQs review: Cameron's 50p tax problem hasn't gone away

The PM's decision to cut taxes for the highest earners left him vulnerable to Miliband's Reagan-style attack over living standards.

It was Ronald Reagan who Ed Miliband channelled at today's PMQs as he asked his own version of the US President's famous question to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debate: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" 

After today's Resolution Foundation report on "Squeezed Britain" warned that household incomes will not return to pre-recession levels until 2023, Miliband asked David Cameron: "At the end of the parliament, will living standards be higher or lower than they were at the beginning?" 

Understandably reluctant to reply "no", Cameron pointed to the action the coalition had taken to protect living standards, including the rise in the personal allowance and the council tax freeze. But Miliband swiftly countered that the biggest tax cut of all was for those earning over a million pounds a year, who would see their income tax bill fall by more than £100,000 from this April. What made the PM think that those earning £20,000 a week needed "extra help to keep the wolf from the door", he asked.

It was a reminder of why the decision to scrap the 50p rate tax was so politically disastrous for the Tories; it confirmed their status as the party of the rich and overshadowed the Budget's more popular measures. Cameron may contend that the 50p rate was a revenue loser for the Treasury but to most voters that sounds like an argument for cracking down on avoidance, not for cutting taxes. Later asked by Labour MP Stephen Pound whether he would personally benefit from the move, Cameron replied evasively that he would "pay his taxes". Expect Labour to take every opportunity to ask this question before the start of the new tax year on 6 April. 

But Cameron gained the upper hand when he turned his fire on Miliband. Referencing the "major speech" that the Labour leader will give on the economy tomorrow, he mockingly quoted reports that "it won’t have any new policies in it". Jon Cruddas had said that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good", the PM went on to note. "That is right, the whole frontbench opposite is no good." 

It was punchy stuff but Cameron's decision to cut the 50p rate, combined with the suspicion that he will benefit from the move, means he remains vulnerable on the subject of living standards. With this in mind, Tory MP Robert Halfon has imaginatively called for the reintroduction of the 10p rate, to prove that his party believes in "tax cuts for the many, not just for the few", while simultaneously reminding voters of a Labour error. 

So it was notable that Cameron remarked towards the end of the session, "we won't forget the abolition of the 10p tax rate". Was this is a hint of action to come in the Budget? Almost certainly not (the fiscally conservative Osborne wouldn't allow it), but it would be exactly the kind of "trump card" that Tory MPs have been urging the Chancellor to play. 

David Cameron waits outside Number 10 Downing Street in London on February 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.