Why Danny Alexander's promise to keep the 45p tax rate can't be trusted

The Lib Dems says the top tax rate will be cut "over my dead body". But he said the same about the 50p rate in 2011.

Danny Alexander's decision last week to attack Labour's "borrowing bombshell" (a conspicuous echo of Conservative rhetoric) and to outline coalition spending totals until 2020-21 went down predictably badly with the Lib Dem left. Just three days before his intervention, Vince Cable had emphasised that his party was not bound to George Osborne's post-2015 deficit reduction timetable: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." But Alexander's willingness to join the Chancellor in a united front against Ed Balls appeared to confirmed the long-held suspicion that he has gone "native" at the Treasury (the joke runs that the Lib Dem man in the Treasury has become the Treasury man in the Lib Dems). 

In response, Prateek Buch, the co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum (and a Staggers contributor), said: "Cuts on the scale planned by Osborne just cannot be delivered. So why should Lib Dems endorse the Chancellor’s straitjacket? It is beyond me why Danny would sign up to what appears to be joint Lib Dem/Tory spending plans going beyond the end of the next parliament, when no such figures have been agreed by his own party. It is unhelpful to pre-empt the party’s manifesto process in this way. Besides, the plans take no account of the need to invest, or what will happen to GDP. What happened to differentiating ourselves from the Tories?"

Perhaps unsettled by this criticism, today finds Alexander seeking to put some clear yellow water between himself and his coalition partners. He tells the Daily Mirror that a cut in the 45p tax rate (which the Tories have repeatedly refused to rule out) will happen "over my dead body" and says of the claim that he has gone "native": "If that’s what people think about me, then they are wrong. I am Liberal Democrat – full stop, end of story." 

But given past form, don't be surprised if Osborne ends up walking over Alexander's corpse on his way to deliver the Budget. In July 2011, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said of those calling for the abolition of the 50p tax rate: "The idea that we're going to somehow shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land". But eight months later, Osborne did just that (while failing to introduce the mansion tax that the Lib Dems demanded in return). While there is no sign that the Tories are considering another reduction in the top rate in this parliament (in what would be a pre-election gift to Labour), it would be unwise to take Alexander's word for it.

Asked about the subject on the Today programme this morning, Boris Johnson quipped that "the last thing I want to see is a pointless sacrifice from the Liberal Democrats, let alone the dead body of Danny Alexander" before hinting that the next Conservative manifesto would, at the very least, not commit to keeping the 45p rate. He said: "I can't believe we're going to go into an election with a tax rate so high." Since it's the Mayor's brother, Jo Johnson (the head of the No. 10 policy board) who is responsible for the manifesto, he can be assumed to speak with some authority on this matter. Finally, asked whether Alexander could be thrown over board to allow a cut in the top rate, he intriguingly remarked: "stranger things have happened at sea". 

Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear