The message of the marriage tax: two people good, one person bad

A very odd tax break.

David Cameron believes in marriage. So do I, it would be such a weird thing to make up - so I'm not really sure why it needs a tax break to make it flesh.

The idea of a tax break for married couples has had an on-off relationship with the Conservative party over the years. Right now, Tim Lougton, a rebel Tory MP, has pressured David Cameron into bringing forward proposals to give married people £150 in tax breaks -  the "start of something bigger", says Lougton.

"It’s an important message and it’s also the start of something. £150 is a figure that was plucked out of the air as how it might start; the amendment I’ve been putting forward gives the Chancellor maximum flexibility as to how generous he can be," he told the Today programme.

But Nick Clegg slammed the policy - and I have to say I agree with him. Here's the first thing, whether the start of something bigger or not, £150 really is not very much. Not enough to maintain a loveless marriage over. Probably not even enough to stimulate passionate love where there was none. (My research tells me it took £10,000 a year for Elizabeth Bennet, and that's before inflation). No, the point is, as Cameron said later, it's symbolic. It's an "important message" from the Conservative party, and that message is: two people good, one person bad.

But we know this already. Everyone knows this. Even films know this - it's the key indicator of whether you're watching something arty and highbrow (sad lonely person at end) or something by Richard Curtis (Hugh Grant gets married). This is why people stay in relationships when they're not really sure they're enjoying it any more, or when they're suffering from domestic violence (2 women a week are killed this way).

It's like the Conservative party have become advocates for a 365 day Valentine's day.  Which is great, if you're married, but then it's already great if you're married.

Here's the wider point: we don't need to provide extra motivation for things we are already motivated to do. Policy doesn't always have to be about psychology. Sometimes it should be about support.

The Right often argue that their values are far more in line with our instincts. They're correct - and that's exactly why we need the Left.

David Cameron approves this cake. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.