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.
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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