The problem with Clegg's tax cut plan: it does nothing to help the poorest

The lowest-paid five million workers will not benefit from an increase in the income tax threshold to £10,500. Cutting VAT or National Insurance would be more progressive.

When the Lib Dems' plan to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 by 2015 was discussed in the televised leaders' debates, David Cameron told Nick Clegg: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it." The PM has rather changed his tune since then. He now leads a government that will meet that pledge in April 2014, a year earlier than promised, and a party that lists its greatest achievement as "a tax cut for 24 million hardworking people".

With the £10,000 threshold due to take effect when the new tax year begins, there is room for the coalition to go further in the two Budgets that remain before May 2015. Today, in an attempt to reclaim ownership of the policy, Clegg has called on George Osborne to deliver a pre-election tax cut by increasing the allowance to £10,500 and delivering a "workers' bonus" (note the smart framing).

Interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, he boasted that his plan would mean "an extra £100 in everybody's pocket". Except, of course, it wouldn't. Raising the personal allowance will do nothing for the lowest-paid five million workers, all of whom earn less than £10,000, or the unemployed, the disabled and the retired. As the IFS has shown, those in the second-richest decile gain the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth, who gain marginally less due to the gradual removal of the personal allowance after £100,000 (a brilliant piece of stealth redistribution by Alistair Darling). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least.

Marr failed to challenge Clegg on this point, but Labour and other parties should. Progressive alternatives to raising the income tax threshold include increasing the National Insurance threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, or cutting VAT, which stands at a record 20 per cent and hits the poorest hardest. These policies might not be as politically attractive as a cut in income tax, but they will do more to get money where it is most needed.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

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