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

Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.