Ahead of the Budget on Wednesday, Ed Balls has given an interview to the BBC calling on George Osborne to scrap the planned marriage tax allowance and use the money saved to introduce a 10p tax rate.
It's a smart intervention, not least because the socially liberal Osborne privately loathes the policy (for both political and economic reasons). As Balls notes, despite the broad promise to "recognise marriage" in the tax system, just a third of couples (4.1 million) will gain from the move. Eighty four per cent of the winners are men and just one in six families with children will benefit. By contrast, a 10p rate of tax would help 24 million taxpayers, including two-thirds (eight million) of married couples.
Here's Balls's exchange with Nick Robinson:
EB: What did he actually announce last year, he said that he would introduce a married couples allowance which, when you look at the detail, only goes to a third of married couples, and one in six families with children, it goes mainly to men. We think what we should actually do is scrap the married couples allowance which is perverse and unfair, and use that money to give a tax cut for all middle and lower income families. We propose a new 10p starting rate of income tax, it's better than the personal allowance, because it’s better for work incentives, it would help two-thirds of married couples, it would help women as well as men, families with children. Let’s cut taxes for working families, and let’s ease this cost-of-living crisis rather than carrying on pandering to Tory backbenchers with tax cuts that are unfair and don’t make sense.
NR: Let me be clear what you’re telling us, if you’re Chancellor, the marriage tax break goes?
EB: Well it goes, because let’s be honest, it doesn’t go to widows, it doesn’t go to people who’ve been left by an abusive husband, it only goes to a third of married couples, the vast majority of families with children get no benefit, get rid of that, and use that money to help all middle and lower income families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Fair tax cuts from Labour, not unfair tax cuts from George Osborne.
When I asked a Balls source whether the announcement meant the revenue that would be raised through a mansion tax (which Labour has pledged to introduce on properties worth more than £2m to fund a 10p rate) could be used for other measures, I was told that the party was not "de-linking 10p and mansion tax", or making a firm commitment to scrap the marriage tax allowance to help pay for the former. Rather, it is an example of a fairer choice that Osborne could make next week and an affirmation of Labour's commitment to tax cuts for the many, not the few.
Balls is certainly right to emphasise his opposition to the marriage tax allowance, which is, as I've written before, a terrible policy. It will reduce work incentives by encouraging second earners to stay at home, further complicate the tax system and do little to support those families most in need of help. It's also, as Osborne has recognised, bad politics.
In a GQ article earlier this year, Andy Coulson described the perception that the Tories frown upon single parents as "electoral halitosis", but this policy unambiguously discriminates against them. Among those who also don't gain from the policy, as the campaign group Don't Judge My Family has noted, are widows and widowers, people who leave abusive relationships and working couples. Are liberal Conservatives really comfortable with tilting the tax system against them? The philanderer on his third marriage gains, while the hard-pressed single mother is ignored.
But under relentless pressure from Conservative backbenchers, Cameron has been forced to press ahead with a measure that will further toxify the Tory brand.