What Miliband's Sweden trip told us about Labour's tax policy

The Labour leader's commitment to "fairer", rather than "higher" taxes, suggests the party will not seek to significantly increase the overall tax burden.

While David Cameron visited India, Ed Miliband used the recess to make a pilgrimage to social democratic Europe. Accompanied by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and his chief consigliere Stewart Wood, Miliband held meetings with Denmark's Social Democrat prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (who is married to Neil Kinnock's son, Stephen) and the leaders of Labour's Dutch and Swedish sister parties. 

Having stated that greater income equality should be an "explicit goal" of a Labour government, Miliband believes that the UK has much to learn from Sweden and Denmark, the most equal countries in the developed world. He has expressed particular admiration for Sweden's system of universal childcare, the policy credited with enabling its impressive levels of female employment. More than 80 per cent of Swedish mothers work, compared with just 67 per cent in the UK. In a nod to this achievement, Miliband tweeted during his visit: "Just arriving at Swedish Parliament building, passing two Swedish fathers with pushchairs. Scandinavian scene."

But one thing the Labour leader doesn't think we should import from the Nordic countries are their tax rates. In an interview with Bloomberg (which is worth reading in full), he said: 

There are some lessons you can learn, and some things that are different. They’ve always had a tradition of significantly higher tax and spending, which we don’t have in Britain and aren’t going to have in Britain. We’ve said that we want tax cuts for low and middle income families. That’s a sign of a fairer tax system; it’s not about higher taxes.

Miliband's words suggest that while a Labour government would increase taxes on the wealthy (as well as proposing a mansion tax, the party is considering reintroducing the 50p rate), it would not significantly increase the overall tax burden. Rather than traditional tax and spend, Miliband will look to predistributive measures such as the living wage, curbs on predatory energy and rail companies and universal childcare to combat inequality.

But the question he will need to answer is whether it is possible to fund the party's priorities -  jobs, housing, social care and childcare - without also raising taxes on middle and lower earners. If Labour goes into the 2015 election promising only to make the rich pay more, the Tories will be quick to dust down their "tax bombshell" posters. 

Ed Miliband and Swedish Social Democratic leader Stefan Lofven, visit the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war