Why Labour will reverse Cameron’s top rate tax cut

The latest figures from HMRC show that people earning over £150,000 paid almost £10bn more in tax in the three years when the 50p rate was in place. We need to get the deficit down in a fair way.

The Tories like to fix the facts to fit the story they want to tell. Only yesterday we saw them desperately pull together dodgy figures to make the ludicrous claim that people are better off under them, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It only served to show just how out of touch they are.

It’s similar to what they’ve done when it comes to the 50p tax rate. David Cameron and George Osborne are desperate to be able to claim the 50p tax raised as little money as possible. That makes it easier for them to justify giving a tax cut to millionaires at a time when ordinary families are facing a cost-of-living crisis. But the decision to cut the 50p rate was a highly political decision, driven not by the evidence but by David Cameron and George Osborne’s desire to give the richest people in our country a tax cut.

The Tory-led government’s own assessment claims the cost of cutting the rate to 45p, excluding all behavioural changes, was over £3bn. To justify the tax cut the Tories argue that most of this potential revenue would be lost as a result of tax avoidance.  But crucially, the scale of the behavioural impact has been decided by Ministers, not HMRC. And latest figures from the HMRC show that people earning over £150,000 paid almost £10bn more in tax in the three years when the 50p rate was in place than was estimated at the time when the government did its assessment back in 2012.

The Tories also claim that tax revenues rose after they cut the top rate of tax. But the ONS and OBR have both said that many of the highest earners moved income and delayed bonuses by a year after George Osborne’s 2012 Budget in order that they could benefit from the lower top rate of tax. This shifting of income will actually have cost the Treasury millions of pounds in lost revenue.

Labour has been clear that when the deficit is high and ordinary families are seeing their real incomes fall, it simply can’t be right for David Cameron and George Osborne to give the richest people in the country a massive tax cut. So the next Labour government will make changes to create a fairer tax system. That means cracking down on tax avoidance, scrapping the shares for rights scheme and reversing the tax cut for hedge funds. We want a lower 10p starting rate of tax, which would help make work pay and cut taxes for 24 million people on middle and lower incomes.

And in order to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear a fairer share of the burden, Ed Balls has today announced that the next Labour government will reverse the Tory top rate tax cut in the next Parliament while we are finishing the job of getting the deficit down.

This is a fairer way to reduce the deficit. And the Tories will have to explain why the richest one per cent of earners should get a tax cut while tough times continue for everyone else.

Shabana Mahmood is shadow exchequer secretary

David Cameron speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide