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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle