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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.