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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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.