The real Labour divide over the 50p tax rate

Is it a temporary tax or a permanent one?

In an attempt to counter Labour's populist (and popular) pledge to reintroduce the 50p tax rate, the Tories have been quoting Lord Myners' rather colourful denunciation of the policy. The former City minister (from 2008-10) said of Ed Balls's announcement: "The economic logic behind his thinking would not get him a pass at GCSE economics", adding that "We need to encourage productive enterprise and effort rather than resort to predatory taxation. It is not clear how this is going to help the UK economy compete with the world's growth economies. The UK already has an income tax system that is more progressive than most of our international competitors."

But in opposing the policy, Myners is very much the exception that proves the rule. Almost all in Labour recognise that the 50p pledge is a smart way of proving that the party is committed to fair deficit reduction and of framing the Tories as the party of the rich. Alistair Darling, for instance, said on Sky News this morning: "I think in the context, when I increased the top rate of tax to 50p I did it on a temporary basis, I made it very clear that I didn’t see that as being a long-term position but the deficit reduction has taken far longer than anybody would want and when you talk about reducing the deficit, there are quite substantial cuts that are slated to come in after the next election and it just seems to me that we need to be fair about this so that people with the broadest shoulders carry their fair share of the burden."

But it's worth highlighting a more subtle but significant divide within the party. In his speech at the Fabian Society conference yesterday and in his apperance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Ed Balls said several times that the 50p rate would only remain in place "while we get the deficit down". This is designed to present the move as a temporary, pragmatic measure, rather than as a permanent feature of the tax system. Balls, who is more conscious than some in the party of the need to avoid appearing anti-business, emphasised: "I've had very many businesspeople say to me over the last year or so, they say: 'We want to get the top rate of tax down' – well, of course they do. I want lower tax rates".

But while Balls has adopted this pragmatic stance, there are many in Labour who are committed to a top rate of 50p as a matter of principle. Back in June 2010, when he was running for the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband put himself in this camp when he said:

I would keep the 50p rate permanently. It's not just about reducing the deficit, it's about fairness in our society and that's why I'd keep the 50p tax rate, not just for a parliament.

He has not repeated this declaration since but many suspect that it remains his private view. What is not in doubt is that a significant number of the party's MPs believe that the 50p rate is an essential means of redistributing income to reduce inequality, not merely of reducing the deficit.

As for whether Labour would scrap the 50p rate once deficit reduction is complete, it's worth remembering Milton Friedman's line that "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme". Income tax itself was introduced in 1799 as a temporary measure to help fund the fight against Napoleon. Two hundred and fifteen years later, it is still with us.

Update: In response to this post, a Labour spokesman told me that "what is permanent is our commitment to fairness in taxation" and that "the 50p rate is specifically tied to deficit reduction". The same source added that the party would have "more to say" in the coming months about reducing tax avoidance, suggesting that it is looking at means of ensuring that it maximises revenue from the new rate.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital