Will anyone break the tax taboo?

The planned pace of cuts is unachievable. All parties need to talk about tax rises.

The new Resolution Foundation report on public spending (of which more on The Staggers later) is a reminder of the grim inheritance that awaits whichever party wins the 2015 election. Based on Osborne's current fiscal envelope, which Labour has said it will use as its "starting point",  the next government will have to increase the pace of cuts by 50% between 2016 and 2018 in order to meet the deficit target. Departmental spending will be reduced by an average of 3.8%, compared to 2.4% in 2010-15 and 2.7% in 2015-16. Should the ring-fences around health, international development and schools spending remain, some departments will have had their budgets more than halved by the end of the programme (which, based on recent form, is likely to be further extended to 2020), with a 64% cut to the Foreign Office, a 46% cut to the Home Office and a 36% cut to defence. 

Tasked with delivering a Tory majority in 2015, Osborne has pushed the bulk of austerity into the years after the election. But as both the Resolution Foundation and the IFS now argue, the forecast cuts are implausible. At some point, if they are to eliminate the structural deficit (one that exists regardless of the level of output), which stood at 4% last year, our politicians will need to talk about tax rises. Even to maintain the current level of cuts (as opposed to a more aggressive pace), the next Chancellor will have to raise taxes by £10bn.

But, as in the past, both Labour and the Tories appear determined not to broach this subject. Osborne perpetuates the myth that as much as 80% of the remaining consolidation can be achieved through cuts, while Labour talks only of possibly reinstating the 50p rate and introducing a mansion tax (partly in order to fund the reinstatement of a 10p rate), which wouldn't even raise half of the £10bn required. 

In practice, both parties will almost certainly raise taxes on all earners immediately after the election (as new governments so often do), but will they have the decency to warn us in advance? During the 2010 election, David Cameron repeatedly stated that the Tories had "absolutely no plans to raise VAT".

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up taxes.

That first Budget, of course, saw VAT increased from 17.5% to a record high of 20%, a move Osborne and Cameron had been planning all along (you don't raises taxes by £12.5bn on a whim). 

If this insult to democracy is not to be repeated, the parties must avoid colluding in the conspiracy of silence that so often affects tax. It should not be beyond our political class to engage the public in a reasonable debate about how best to raise new revenue. A land value tax; aligning income tax and capital gains; a higher top rate; a penny on income tax; all of these options should be discussed. But if recent history is any guide, don't count on our politicians doing so. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London on June 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses