Minimum alcohol pricing fails the coalition's "cost of living test"

Policy irony of the day: the Tories reject minimum alcohol pricing because it "hits the poorest hardest".

The most notable thing about the government's apparent U-turn on minimum alcohol pricing is the basis on which the policy has been rejected. Theresa May, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley have led a cabinet revolt against the proposal on the grounds that it would hit the poorest hardest and punish responsible drinkers as well as irresponsible ones. 

On a point of fact, they are correct. Minimum pricing would have a disproportionate effect on the poorest since they spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol. An IFS report found that a price of 45p per unit (the level proposed by ministers) would cost the poorest households 2 per cent of their total food budget, compared to 1.3 per cent for the richest. Lansley, a long-standing opponent of minimum pricing, told the Spectator last year: "it's regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don't happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don't think so". 

The policy, it appears, has failed the coalition's new "cost of living test". After the great pasty tax revolt, ministers are wary of anything that increases the price of people's pleasures, particularly at a time when the government is about to hand 8,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £107,500 by scrapping the 50p rate. 

But if the new measure of a proposal is to be whether it hits the poorest hardest (as Lansley's stance suggests) it's worth noting how many of the government's existing policies fail this test. The decision to raise VAT, for instance, a regressive tax that takes no account of income, inevitably had a disproportionate effect on low earners. A study published in 2011 by the Office for National Statistics showed that the poorest fifth spend nearly 10 per cent of their disposable income in VAT compared with 5 per cent for the richest households.

Alongside this, the government has capped benefit increases at 1 per cent (a policy that will force even more to choose between heating and eating), reduced the fund for council tax benefit by 10 per cent (a measure that will force thousands to pay the tax for the first time) and elected to charge social housing tenants for their "spare" rooms (the notorious "bedroom tax"), all at the same as cutting income tax for the highest earners. Confronted by a government that has so often chosen to hit the poor, while sparing the rich, it's hard to take their new emphasis on the "cost of living" entirely seriously. 

A 'Cheap Booze' sign displayed outside a Hoxton off licence on November 28, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition