Why Miliband’s tax move is good news for the Lib Dems

The Labour leader's speech has reminded voters of two distinctive and popular Lib Dem policies: increasing the personal allowance and introducing a mansion tax.

Attempting to predict the issues that are likely to feature in a future general election is as foolhardy as it is difficult. However great the plans of those competing, however well honed their message calendars, the one thing we all know for certain is that events come along like storms in the desert and change the political landscape before our eyes.

But we speculate anyway, and occasionally we get it right. Probably the surest prediction we can make about the issues likely to be at play in the 2015 general election is that tax policy will feature heavily. Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday makes that as close to a certainty as possible.
The official Liberal Democrat response to Miliband’s speech was dismissive of his overall proposals: the Liberal Democrats in government have reduced the income tax paid by those on the lowest incomes by more in three years than Labour did in thirteen.
And the analysis of the speech by the Institute for Fiscal Studies supported the party’s assertion that the Lib Dem policy of raising the threshold at which people begin to pay income tax is a less complex and more effective way of helping the low paid than re-introducing the 10p rate.
Yet despite criticising the content, Liberal Democrats will be secretly rather happy with the Labour leader’s speech, for two reasons.
First, it shifts the political debate to the area where the Lib Dems are at their strongest: tax policy. For whatever else the party has done in government, it is the implementation of a £10,000 tax-free allowance that is cutting through the fog and being recognised by voters as a distinctive achievement.
In the run-up to the next general election, Liberal Democrats will want to talk of little else. Raising the threshold further – to the level of the average earnings of those on the national minimum wage – is already party policy. The party reasons that the combined message of having delivered the £10,000 threshold and seeking to go further in the next parliament is a very strong one indeed.
The second reason Liberal Democrats will be pleased with the speech is Miliband’s embrace of a mansion tax. You might think that the party would be annoyed by Labour’s blatant theft of one of its key policies, but actually the reverse is true.
The mansion tax is embedded in the minds of the public as a Lib Dem policy. It is unlikely that a random conversion to the merits of the idea will convince voters that if they want a mansion tax they should vote Labour. So by adopting the policy Miliband’s main achievement is to remind voters of the mansion tax, and to increase its importance in the political debate over taxation. Why would Liberal Democrats not welcome such a boost for one of the party’s most distinctive policies?
Labour's adoption of the policy also helps when it comes to negotiations in the event of another hung parliament, particularly if (as looks distinctly possible) the arithmetic allows for an arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and either Labour or the Tories. Most party members will not welcome Miliband’s change of heart because it is more likely to lead to a Labour-Lib Dem government. Contrary to popular belief, only a small number of party members would actively prefer that option.
Most Liberal Democrats would prefer to enter into an arrangement with whichever party agrees to implement more Lib Dem policies. And just as Labour’s warmer feelings towards electoral reform strengthened the Lib Dem hand in 2010 sufficiently to force the Tories into agreeing a referendum on the alternative vote, so the party’s embrace of a mansion tax makes it more likely that the policy will be implemented if Liberal Democrats end up in government, be it with Labour or the Tories.
Whether Miliband’s speech does Labour any good in the long-term remains to be seen, but Liberal Democrats should welcome it: there is every chance it will help Clegg’s party even more.
Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable during a visit to the Ricardo Engine Assembly plant on September 24, 2012 in Shoreham-by-Sea. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.