Clegg's narrow victory on the 50p tax rate shows how divided the Lib Dems are

Lib Dem delegates voted by a majority of just four (224-220) not to pledge to reintroduce the 50p rate as Clegg and Farron divided.

After his victories on nuclear power, tuition fees and 'Osbornomics', Nick Clegg's winning streak has continued. In line with the leadership's position, Lib Dem delegates have just voted not to reintroduce the 50p tax rate and to maintain the 45p rate, albeit by a margin of just four (224-220).

While party president Tim Farron had called in my interview with him for the party to back the higher rate both to raise additional revenue and to demonstrate that "we are all in it together", Clegg said this morning: "To drive home the message of tax reform I think changing one very specific symbolic tax rate is not really the key part of the matter." The key intervention in the debate came from Vince Cable, who reminded delegates that the party's previous policy was to support a 40p rate alongside a mansion tax and argued that excessively high taxes on income could have negative economic effects.

Had the party voted to back the 50p rate it would have been an unambiguous assertion of its centre-left character, but the result will be seen as an acceptance of the more economically liberal path pursued by Clegg. (Although it is worth remembering that the party previously voted to abandon support for the 50p rate under Ming Campbell's leadership in 2006.) But the narrowness of the victory shows how divided the Lib Dems remain about their ideological direction. While Orange Bookers such as David Laws and Jeremy Browne would probably like to see the top rate reduced to 40p, Farron and the party's left have demonstrated the support that exists for a more social democratic approach.

Should the Lib Dems be presented with a choice of coalition partner after the next election, with both Labour and the Tories winning enough seats to form majority governments with their support, it is these two groups that will be pitted against each other in a battle for the party's soul.

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron, who called for the party to support the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.