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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Absolutely Fashion showed what fashion week is really like: nasty, brutish and short

With fake meetings about fake covers, the documentary gave a glimpse into the abyss at the heart of the fashion world.

London Fashion Week is the sad little sister of the one in Paris, where I once attended a Valentino couture show dressed by Gap, watched what looked like live-action anorexia nervosa at Armani and got into a fight at Chanel. Did a man wearing a lion’s head on his real head look stupid? Yes, said I. No, said the fashion ­journalist, with fury.

Fashion Week had a small elegy this year – a BBC2 documentary called Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, which was fantastically misnamed. There is nothing inside Vogue, except a vague groping for novelty, which is technically an abyss. But that did not stop the programme’s director, Richard Macer, from sitting in Vogue House for nine months, watching women smell each other’s mascara. In the way of a certain type of media, he seems to have emerged more ignorant than when he began. This is the central principle of fashion: stupefy the buyer and she will pay to be reborn as something uglier.

“He doesn’t understand fashion,” said one critic, which I think meant: “He should have licked Karl Lagerfeld’s shoes while crying about belts.” To this critic, that is understanding fashion. It is a religious hierarchy. (That no one has asked Lagerfeld what he has done to his face, and why, proves this. When I met Lagerfeld in Paris, he was behind a velvet rope. I wondered if he sleeps with it.) Macer is a sexist, suggested another critic, who seemed to think that any industry that employs women in large numbers – human surrogacy farms, for instance, or Bangladeshi textile factories, or German super-brothels – is feminist. This is the stupidest definition of feminism I have yet heard and I have fashion to thank for it.

Macer was too frightened to ask questions about exploitation, pollution or the haunting spectacle of malnourished adolescents inciting self-hatred in older females in pursuit of profit, and he is not alone. I read no insights about London Fashion Week, but I do not care about clothes. He was so cowed by his access as to be undeserving of it, and Absolutely Fashion was as much about the laziness and commercial imperatives of modern journalism as it was about fashion, from which we should expect nothing.

Macer had a tiny scoop: British Vogue learned that American Vogue was running a cover of the singer Rihanna in the same calendar month. It decided to run early and people stayed up all night anxiously repaginating. He had the opportunity to ask Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the US magazine, about it, but a staffer begged him not to. So he didn’t. He segued from journalist to PR. He drank the opiate – and I understand this, because if you don’t, you won’t survive. “Come again,” Jean Paul Gaultier once told me in Paris. His meaning was: “. . . but only if you love my clothes”.

In one scene, the actor Hugh Jackman was photographed in a bathtub at Claridge’s Hotel in London. He was fully clothed and looked marginally more stupid than he does dressed as the genetically mutated wolf man Wolverine, but that is not the point. “Come and see how handsome you are, Hugh,” cooed a Vogue woman. I wouldn’t have minded Jackman preening over an image of himself in private, but this exposed a truth: some journalism is celebrity PR.

Elsewhere, Kate Moss did a shoot wearing clothes that belonged to the Rolling Stones. It was based, she said, on a well-known shoot that they once did “in exile”. She meant tax exile, which was funny.

That Vogue, which is still, at least nominally, a magazine, should devote itself to this junk is not excused by an intellectual curiosity so dulled that one executive said that New York Fashion Week had “a sort of Lego element to it”.

British Vogue is edited by Alexandra Shulman, and in the manner of print media with long-standing editors – she has been there for 24 years – it is, in essence, a cult. In this case, a passive-aggressive-ocracy. (People are always surprised to learn that magazines are tyrannies, but there it is.)

I do not know whether Shulman wanted Macer there or not, or whether she didn’t have the clout to stop it, but once he was in, she treated him with the bored derision of a woman contemplating a ball gown chewed by moths. Shulman has the face of a woman who should get out while she can. In her only revealing scene, she had to choose between two front covers. One was “artistic” because it showed Kate Moss’s knickers; the other was unthreatening because it showed only Kate Moss’s face. “My heart is never allowed to rule,” she said, and she laughed. But I think she meant it.

She lied to Macer, too, holding fake meetings about fake covers so the world would not learn that Vogue had, by its cracked standards, a huge scoop: the Duchess of Cambridge would appear on the cover of the 100th-anniversary issue in a hat.

Absolutely Fashion also taught us, had we not known, that fashion is peopled by privileged creatures who are impervious to the extent of their privilege and who are, therefore, bad journalists, because they cannot even effectively interview themselves. For instance, the photographer Mary McCartney, one of Paul’s daughters, told Macer that she had never got work because her father was a member of the Beatles.

To be oblivious to reality is essential in fashion. Everyone is equal under the skirt. Yet McCartney flourishes because of the doctrine of the age: the already prosperous are more worthy of prosperity.

Not everyone seemed so disingenuous. One woman described the search for the non-existent novelty as “exhausting”. She no longer believed in the cult.

Absolutely Fashion, if you watch it critically, is more interesting than Macer perhaps allowed himself to dream. In its way, it embodied any fashion week anywhere: nasty, brutish and short. 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times