Labour and the Tories are both avoiding the tax debate we need

The repetitive and needlessly venomous exchanges over the 50p rate distract from the long-term question of how we should pay for the services that we value in an era of austerity.

Ed Balls’s confirmation that Labour would restore the 50p top rate of income tax has gone down badly with the small number of people who would be eligible to pay. It isn’t very popular with conservative commentators either. The two sets no doubt intersect on the venn diagram of people who think austerity is a much better idea when it affects someone else.

None of this is very surprising. The economic and political arguments are pretty much the same as they were when George Osborne axed the rate – and it was all but inevitable that Labour would pledge to restore it. The attack on a “Tory tax cut for millionaires” probes a serious weakness in the Conservative brand, but its effectiveness would be diminished by a queasy caveat to the effect that “we hate it but we wouldn’t reverse it.” So reverse it Labour will, if they get the chance.

One thing Labour has failed to do in the days since the announcement was made is put any pressure on the Tories and Lib Dems to talk about their own tax rises this parliament – the VAT hike leaps out as a broken Conservative pre-election promise and a regressive measure – and the near certainty that there is more to come after 2015.

Osborne insists he can balance the books without raising any more taxes, simply by stripping yet more cash out of the welfare budget instead. (And he is confident that voters are sufficiently hostile to benefit spending to make cuts in that direction an attractive proposition.) But most economists and policy wonks who have looked at the fiscal projections and scanned the post-election landscape think any incoming government will be raising taxes and cutting spending.

So really the Balls announcement ought to be an opportunity to discuss with a bit of candour how money should be raised. If, as the critics insist, the 50p rate is ineffective and counter-productive, what kind of taxes are legitimate and just?

None but the flattest and lowest possible, say the libertarians. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that an incoming government isn’t rolling in surprisingly luxuriant revenues – that growth disappoints – yet still ministers want to provide universal healthcare, education, a police force, some military capability, investment in infrastructure and a basic guarantee that elderly people will not be abandoned to penury and starvation.

Those, after all, will be Labour and Tory manifesto commitments and they will have to be funded. Even if you accept the view that the optimum direction is always towards lower taxes, there is still a debate to be had about widening the tax base and winning consent for government to impose levies and spend on our collective behalf from time to time.

In my column in the magazine last week, I mentioned the intriguing example of the special “business rate supplement” that helps meet the costs of Crossrail. Those who set it up say the companies that stand to benefit from the new train service were more than happy to subsidise its construction. “A rare example of taxpayers asking to pay more taxes,” was how one architect of the scheme described it to me. Labour’s policy review team are looking closely at this kind of approach – allowing local authorities more fiscal freedom if the focus is on boosting local services and infrastructure.

In a very different corner of the policy field, Danny Finkelstein, Times columnist, Conservative peer, and casual advisor to the Chancellor, recently floated the idea of a dedicated NHS tax. The idea is that British voters will only be persuaded of the case for drastic reform of the health service when they are confronted with the reality of how much the current funding model costs them and how inexorably that burden will rise. (The Times article is behind a paywall, so here’s a free discussion of the same issue from Nick Pearce’s IPPR blog.)

The appearance of this notion under Lord Finkelstein’s byline all but guarantees that it will be under some level of consideration in the Treasury. What this and Labour’s local infrastructure thinking have in common is a recognition that traditional models of consent for tax rises have broken down.

Whitehall has always hated hypothecation – the pegging of specific revenue streams to particular services. But in a climate where politicians and officials are simply not trusted with public money, some new devices will be needed to reassure people, whether as private households or businesses, that it is worthwhile handing a portion of their earnings over to state agencies so they can effect good works.

The repetitive and needlessly venomous exchanges over the 50p rate have shown that British politicians like arguments about taxes that reinforce existing prejudices about their opponents – Labour as neo-Bolshevik confiscators of wealth; Tories as self-serving plutocrats defending their entrenched privileges. There are all sorts of questions to be asked about the kind of taxation that supports growth and enterprise, adequately and sustainably funds public services, is not too onerous and conforms to voters’ natural sense of fairness. Sadly, that isn’t the debate we are going to have in the run-up to the next general election. 

Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

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